Some views on Empathy

I was recently sent an interesting TED talk by Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, titled The Power of Empathy. One of the interesting parts of the talk is how she forms a mnemonic out of “empathy” to describe performance enhancing techniques for improving one’s empathy.

E stands for Eye Gaze: Forming eye contact is critical first step in developing empathy. Dr. Reiss does not mention it but a very good tip for developing empathy is look at someone’s eyes and then make a compliment about the colour.

M stands for Muscles of Facial Expression: The face which is not covered in most cultures is a key form of communication. Smiling is a big way of developing empathy.

P is for Posture: This is another form of empathetic communication. Doctors who sit down on rounds rated by patients as 5x more empathetic than doctors who stood up even though they used the same words.

A is for Affect: This is the scientific term for expressed emotions, such as whether someone is upset or excited.

T stands for Tone of Voice which along with Facial Expression and Posture are key way a person demonstrates his or her affect.

H stands for Hearing the whole person means understanding the context in which other people live and also means keeping your curiosity open and not judging until you really understand where that person is coming from.

Y stands for Your response: According to Dr Reiss we respond to other people’s feelings all the time. We might think that we only experience our own emotions but we’re constantly absorbing the feelings of others

Dr Reiss argue that most emotions are shared. Our brains are hard-wired for empathy – we reflect the feelings of others we are here because we all are here more because of mutual aid and cooperation not survival of the fittest. If we were only wired for survival of the fittest we would only seek to dominate others and look out for ourselves.

While I agree that the majority of people believe in mutual aid and cooperation there is a significant minority who see survival of the fittest as core belief and these are often the ones in leadership positions in society.

To me if appears as if Dr Reiss is contradicting her own beliefs when she notes that cyberbullying is on the rise because it is much easier to inflict harm on people whose pain you don’t see. While this is true, to be a cyberbully you still need to be a person who has limited belief in mutual aid and cooperation. She also notes that many of us now have better eye contact with our devices than we do with our fellow humans.

I have recently put up my own webinar on empathy as part of my Practical Emotional Intelligence Coaching practice. I think it is very important to distinguish between cognitive, affective and compassionate empathy. Cognitive empathy can be learned particularly if you use a tool such as TOPDOG. How people talk, their dress, decisions about their office or home, their levels of formality and punctuality are all important clues to the core emotional drives of their temperament.


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