Empathy Anyone?

I was returning in a cab after a dynamic coaching session where we were discussing on one word to describe empathy, and I had said, “Connect”. However, a lesson in empathy @ the grass root level was about to enfold before me which kind of left me speechless.

My head was swimming with ideas with the session we had just had, and lost to the present moment, I missed giving the right directions to the cab driver and he had to do a missed return and a roundabout too. At the next turning he stopped and asked “Where do I turn now”? I was about to miss the turn again, and said how kind he was to have asked. He replied, “Seeing you madam, I noticed you were deep in thought and likely to miss again. I always observe my passengers and if I notice that I have to pitch in to make their ride smoother and better, I do take care!” This was the best lesson in empathy I had had through all my reading of management books and training on Empathy!

If such people make the world a better place to live in, the questions that flooded my mind were:

  • Why is that certain people have the empathic factor in abundance that can gush forth like a fountain spring, while others do not?
  • Is empathy something one is born with or a completely learned behaviour, or a combination of both? 
  • And finally is the empathy factor a constant through different situations?

According to Dr. Peri Class, a practising paediatrician, the capacity to notice the distress of others, and to be moved by it, can be a critical component of what is called prosocial behavior, or actions that benefit others. Empathy is an integral part of prosocial behaviour… the ability to tune in to the other persons’ thoughts and feelings.

Based on studies conducted on twins, she has suggested that there is some genetic component to prosocial tendencies. When reacting to an adult who is pretending to be distressed, for example, identical twins behave more like each other than do fraternal twins. And as children grow up, these early manifestations of sympathy and empathy become part of complex decision-making and personal morality.

Scott Huettel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, described two broad theories to explain prosocial behavior. One, he said, was essentially motivational: It feels good to help other people. This is also referred to as the “warm glow effect” likened to have the same effect for charitable giving.

The other theory of prosocial behaviour, according to Dr. Huettel, is based on social cognition or the recognition that other people have needs and goals. The two theories, he adds aren’t mutually exclusive: Cognitive understanding accompanied by a motivational reward reinforces prosocial behavior.

However, Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, a senior research scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has also done some of these twin studies, has this to say, “There is no gene for empathy, or for altruism. What’s heritable may be some personality characteristics.”

Whether empathy is a trait that can be inherited or not, it is good to know that empathy can be developed and worked upon as a learned behavior.  The focus is to have an attitude to enhance ones’ empathy levels by conscious awareness and practising it till it becomes embedded in the subconscious, as spontaneous prosocial behaviour.

Empathy, today is a must have trait whether it is for being an effective team player, for honing leadership skills, or for personal growth and enhancement.

A research team headed by Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences has discovered that our own feelings can distort our capacity for empathy, and adds: “Egoism and narcissism appear to be on the rise in our society, while empathy is on the decline. And yet, the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes is extremely important for our coexistence”.

To put it in a nutshell, you may be the blessed one who has the heritable personality that is packaged with empathy, for others, self-awareness, and constantly regulating your feelings is the key factor to enhance your empathy levels. Remember empathy leaves you with a ‘warm glow’ effect! And who does not want that?

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