In the last few years so much work has been done by people such as Daniel Goleman – Emotional Intelligence, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen – Zero Degrees of empathy and Peter Balzalgette – The Empathy Instinct, all looking at the benefits of empathy; what impact it has, and what erodes it. Whilst a huge topic, empathy has been seen as the cornerstone of human relationships. It was something we are hardwired to do and should continue to develop. However this has now been challenged by Paul Bloom who states that empathy is actually damaging to the greater good of the human race, preventing objective decisions and should be replaced with rational compassion.
My blogs never have been and never will be about stating a definitive answer that suits every theory and person, as I have studied and worked with enough psychological theories to appreciate, they all have good merit, but, all have components that violently clash with the others too. In reality, we can look through many different lenses to get understanding of the human mind and behaviour, all valuable. More so what I offer is the evaluation of theories and research in real life scenarios. So this is what I do here…..
The question I pose in the title, does not have a clear-cut answer, as I do not think that empathy is clear cut any more than those who house it…..US (and other animals)…yep…living beings. Focusing on humans, we are so complex that we operate on many psychological and interactive levels. For example
#1 A personal and insular level – where we are focused on (consciously or unconsciously) on what will keep us as an individual in harmony….You know, that conflict, conversation and emotional dialogue that we have going on inside ourselves about what we need to feel safe, happy and fulfilled.
#2 A personal interactive level – where we are focused personally, but in relation to our family, friends and colleagues, what they feel and what they need, their impact on us.
#3 A social level – where we are focused on supporting people who we hardly know, if at all. The stranger in the street or the person who we come into contact with in our work.
#4 A global level – where we are focused on the greater good of the masses and those we will never meet.
With just this crude and simplistic breakdown of our many levels in using our mind and emotions (consciously and unconsciously), is it any wonder it is hard to assess sometimes the role that empathy and indeed, compassion, objectivity and procedures have. For every argument for any of these, there will be a counter one. This is what is so great about research and real life evaluations.
When it comes to my real-time evaluation of empathy, rational compassion, objectivity and procedure, I draw on my experience of the presence and absence of empathy. Empathy I felt for example toward clinicians and an organisation after I lost a child in hospital, in circumstances I felt needed to be challenged (anyone familiar with me and my blogs, will be too familiar with this fact). I was blocked at every avenue, something that happens all too often in complaints sectors, with my emotional needs and understanding of my emotional motivations not understood at all, let alone responded to in any kind of beneficial way. They lacked empathy which had a potentially detrimental effect on not only me, but their staff, their practices and therefore, many other people.
Having had the background I had though in counselling, I found myself trying to put myself in the shoes of the clinicians and indeed organisation, to understand why empathy and consequential compassionate responses toward what happened to my child, and their interest in learning lessons did not appear apparent.In fact it appeared the complete opposite.
So I asked empathic questions…. What might it be like to be a doctor with a complaint against them? What might that feel like? Can I imagine that feeling? What might be the culture in the hospital and what did that feel like to be working in it? Would I possibly want to hide away and not face things if I were feeling scared or threatened as I imagined they might be feeling? If so, what would make it worse for me and how might it be easier to face things.? These were all questions I asked myself and I can tell you now, they were not easy!! To try to empathise whilst feeling tormented with grief and being met with such hostility, was no mean feat! But it is exactly what I did.
I stayed in an enquiring mind, I allowed myself to try to imagine the world of another, to feel it, and to respond appropriately…with compassion and objectivity. It did not mean I agreed with them….far from it! But I saw beyond my own feelings to be realistic and more objective. It did not mean that I felt their feelings so strongly that my own were overwhelmed, debilitating me from factual investigation…..my compassion was measured. Tying to understand their world and feelings did not make me unable to work toward a solution that I knew would still cause distress to the medical staff involved…it did NOT debilitate me, I had a job to do and it needed to be done…make no mistake, but made me mindful of how I acted, it was more the how I did it and allowing my mind to be more open. Empathising with them did not mean that I backed away of finding answers that I desperately sought.
What it did mean is that I used my empathy to see the situation in real human terms…because that is what we are…human. I was able to use my understanding of what they might be going through to act myself in a less angry and blaming way, which in the end, was instrumental in getting heard and gain the opportunity to focus on the factual and objective issues at hand. One thing enabled the other.
What it also meant is that I responded with rational compassion toward them….rational compassion though that had its roots in empathy. Empathy did not make me less objective toward the situation, but more, as I considered the full picture to help me make informed decisions. It shifted my own personal and insular level of functioning to a more social level where I was able to consider others and understand actions and behaviours. Along with not being empathised with, if I had not tried to empathise, we would have continued to hit brick walls, practically and emotionally. I would have got angrier and angrier, my behaviour may well have reflected this as I unconsciously dehumanize them to cope. Their defences would have increased and productive, reflective and learning talks been less possible.
And here is the key thing, empathy helped on a social and global level too (by this I mean in helping others I would never meet-the greater good rather than the entire world!!) Valuable lessons that were to be gained from my insight of the illness and treatment that I had witnessed to help to understand why it happened and alter practice for others could have been lost without my empathic thinking and consequential interactions. It turned defensiveness to understanding, learning and reflective.
The CEO of the hospital wrote to me afterwards saying that ”
“Despite the distressing circumstances that led up to our two meetings, you have at all times been articulate, calm and dignified in the way you have dealt with me and my colleagues. I acknowledge and agree with the points raised in your letter. I normally try to be compassionate and empathetic but I let you down that afternoon”
So I have no doubts, that any rational compassion, courage, objectivity, working with procedures, challenging and my own self care, came directly from my use of empathy. Yes it was placed in self-awareness, which is crucial, and something I promote in my work. As with anything, empathy needs managing. So does love, anger, sympathy, compassion, procedures and law….but they all have a place. I don’t deny there are times that empathy can cloud my judgement, but so too can being overly objective and procedural driven that cry out sometimes for flexibility and humanity. Empathy is and should be part of the decision making process and should be given weight. So to empathise or not empathise?…..well having used, analysed and most importantly felt the presence of and absence of, I will always wish to live in a world where the balance is tipped in favour of the answer is YES!
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For more about me see my website www.empathytrainingltd.co.uk