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A Global Empathy Deficit- 2 Lessons

"...We've got a budget deficit that's important, we've got a trade deficit that's critical, but what I worry most is our empathy deficit.” – Interview in O Magazine with Barack Obama.

Perhaps this is not only a US national concern but a global crisis: people are dividing into camps and fighting one another with no mention of sitting down to dialogue.

We, as global human beings living on a shrinking planet, have to stop the insanity, start talking, and stop the fighting.

The fighting is not only among warring nations. It goes on in corporations, small businesses, between entrepreneurs, in schools, in neighborhoods, and in families. There is a lack of talking, listening, and empathizing between people. This is especially true when they are different from us in some way.

We lose patience with others not like us or not of the same viewpoint. We stop listening. And consequently, we lose our ability to understand and find solutions.

We are missing opportunities for talking and dialoguing about what really matters. Dialoguing of course means listening and hearing what the other person is saying. It is not a monologue. It requires more than listening—it requires empathy.

Lesson # 1 in Empathy

Empathy has several ingredients. Most people understand empathy to be “walking in someone else’s shoes.” It is more than that. Information when communicated to us by another human being is processed through the limbic system in the brain, the center for emotions and memory.

The trick here is not to get lost in our own memories and emotions. This requires self-management so quick that it is out of our awareness. We sense that the reason we feel sad that our neighbor is telling us that their dog died is that we have also experienced loss and know what it must be like for them.

To summarize, lesson #1 of empathy has several parts:

  1. Take in information
  2. Process your personal emotional reactions
  3. Reorient yourself to the person and what they are saying
  4. Self-manage personal reactions and memories
  5. Ask questions such as, “Tell me more,” and “How does that feel for you?”
  6. Don’t assume that what they are feeling and experiencing is similar to your experiences
  7. Ask more open-ended questions, such as, “And…?” or, “What else?”
  8. Just listen
  9. Refrain from trying to fix things before step #2

Lesson #2 of Empathy

People usually have a tendency to jump in and want to do something to help too soon. They want to get out of their own discomfort by solving the problem. Often they don’t take the time to really understand what the real problem is before offering solutions. This is how many people come across as NOT being empathetic, when they actually are. They respond too quickly with the wrong solutions.

So, the next important step after lesson #1 (feel the feelings and just listen), is to communicate back to the person that you are hearing them on a deep and personal level.

Simply state back to the person some of what you’ve heard, without interpretation or distortion. This communication requires a deep and honest caring about how other people feel, avoiding judgments and any attempts to minimize the importance of feelings or offering advice.

Like so much, empathy begins with developing ourselves individually, permeates our families and is taught to our children, and then must be communicated with the leaders we entrust to deal with other countries. A continued lack of empathy will result in global degradation.

© 2004 Patsi Krakoff, Psy. D.
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Patsi Krakoff, Psy. D.

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Patsi Krakoff, Psy. D., CBC, is a psychologist, executive coach, and writer. She customizes newsletters for life and executive coaches, providing both content and PDF and HTML ezines for busy professionals. Patsi lives and works from Ajijic, Mexico where she plays tennis daily, and enjoys other creative activities with her husband Rob and two Maine Coon cats, Huey and Dewey. Email patsi@customizednewsletters.com.

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