The Empathy Initiative: Lesson One — Three is a MAGIC Number — How to Let Others Know You’re There With Empathy
Did you know that there are few resources available to learn about empathy? British clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes — Borat’s cousin) has given a TED Talk on empathy to TEDx at Parliament. Brene Brown’s short videos and longer TED talks inspire people to think about being more empathetic. A website offers a smorgasboard of articles but some are dated. Harvard Med psychiatrist Dr. Helen Riess has launched Empathetics.com, which offers empathy training to healthcare professionals for a fee.
Dr. Riess’ TEDx talk on empathy offers an acronym to aid in recalling the components of empathy (“the ways in which we make contact with other people”). The first letter, “E,” stands for eyes: making eye contact. The talk includes research from 2007 in which Dr. Reiss’ therapy with a struggling young student achieved a breakthrough with the aid of skin conductivity tests.
The student, who had only gained weight throughout her life, developed sufficient confidence to take steps to become more fit after Dr. Riess was able to understand the patient’s pain and provide more effective support. The end result: the young woman lost 50 pounds over the course of a year and her life changed dramatically.
The only ongoing scientific study of empathy in the world that I can find is taking place at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Fortunately, the Institute’s work is extensive and ongoing. Contrary to Simon Baron-Cohen’s somewhat dry and elementary TED Talk, Max Planck researchers led by Dr. Tania Singer have identified a brain center that plays a crucial role in empathy: the right supramarginal gyrus.
Our own physical and mental state and the function of time affects how people are able to relate to others’ emotions. Dr. Singer says, “social neuroscience models have assumed that we mainly draw on our own emotions as a reference for empathy. This only works, however, if we are in a neutral state or the same state as our counterpart — otherwise, the brain must counteract and correct.”
In other words, Dr. Singer and her colleagues have identified the mechanism empaths know instinctively, and the neural mechanism by which — all social and cultural norms and differences aside — people either care what happens to others and act accordingly, or do not care and act in a selfish, self-centered manner.
People are less empathetic when they are in pain or confusion themselves, and above all — our brain requires time to process what others are experiencing. When forced to make snap decisions, we naturally default to unempathetic, self-centered, or — to use a popular phrase, “narcissistic” behavior.
There are thousands of studies that include the word “empathy” in their title but upon closer examination, they are all studies focused on the lack of empathy or even more depressing, sociopathy under the guise of “lack of empathy.”
So, everything in the Empathy Initiative is going to be science-based, even though the science is still developing. I know in an empirical sense that empathy is based in our five senses, and different empaths have different areas of strong functioning. My husband is an auditory (hearing) empath, highly attuned to people’s tone of voice. I’m a physical empath. I am attuned to people’s emotional states via touch and body posture.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been practicing different behaviors in the classroom and public interactions. Results have been amazing. It’s not always easy to be perfectly empathetic or to be present. So, here’s the first lesson.
One on Two Can Moderate Problem Behavior
Two or three days a week, I work in a shared office space on the Saddleback College campus called the Faculty Center. The Center has rows of nice Mac computers and everything instructors need to produce great online content for their classes. Our school voted to adopt the Canvas learning management system last year, changing from Blackboard’s LMS, which had been used for at least a decade previously. I already switched two semesters ago, but a number of faculty are making the change for the first time. They have, I believe, another two semesters before everything has to be completely changed over.
No pressure, right?
So two weeks ago I was working as I usually do and my female colleague (“Center Director Cyndi”) was working with a male faculty member (“Coach Bob”) to change his classes from Blackboard to Canvas. The pair were sitting at a workstation two rows behind me.
Center Director Cyndi said, “You can use this menu to email your students. Would you like me to show you?”
“Just do it as fast as you can,” Coach Bob snapped in the same tone as he’d say “Bring me a sammich, binch!”
Here I am posting grades with my back to the two. I was like, “WTF???”
I listened to a couple more comments from Coach Bob that were only slightly more courteous and respectful.
Now, Center Director Cyndi and I have had a couple of chats on male vs. female interaction before and I know she wasn’t “bothered” by Coach Bob at all.
I thought, “What’s the smart play here?” Considering the Empathy Initiative and all.
The obvious interaction would be to directly address his tone, right? Some assertive people might speak right up. In past years, I wouldn’t have spoken out at all, just silently thought what a jerk Coach Bob was.
But I was conducting an experiment.
So I thought a little bit. Then I turned halfway around in my chair and said in a soft voice, “Hey Coach Bob, do you mean that mail square in the upper left corner? I use it for my students all the time. It’s easy to just type the first letter of their name or click on names if you want to send an email to just a few.”
Coach Bob’s tone and demeanor went from rotten to polite immediately.
After a few minutes I stood to get some coffee and saw that instead of slumping over with his chin in his hand in an “I’m so bored” posture, he sat attentively. His voice had softened and he was nodding as Center Director Cyndi continued showing him how to adapt his Blackboard class to Canvas.
I know Coach Bob and know him to be a nice guy. I’ve never had a cross word or interaction with the man, only positive ones. I’m pretty sure his tone resulted from frustration that the school was forcing him to do extra work to change learning management systems.
All I did was gently “notify” him that others were in the room and aware of his presence.
And because he is a nice guy, he realized he should speak more professionally and courteously. I also gave him a “heads up” to see it wasn’t just me in there with them: there were two others working quietly who could also see and hear.
This was not a serious or problem situation: just an experiment. One of our fellow instructors, another empath, thinks that just moving around her college classroom provides a form of empathy to students. So, I’ve been making a conscious effort to move physically close to all students over the past three weeks and speaking quietly and respectfully to as many as possible.
It’s too soon to see if there are any notable results but I do notice good eye contact and engagement with in-class work.
Extra tip from Center Director Cyndi: We were talking about faculty members who rush down the hall looking straight ahead and don’t acknowledge others. She mentioned one Professor who she’d known for 20 years who did this routinely and said she always made a point of smiling and saying “Hello” and their name every time she passed them.
They looked surprised each time, she said.
“How’s the behavior mod experiment going?” I asked her. Mixed results so far.
Now, we (and you) likely know this behavior is a result of the faculty member’s inability to recognize Center Director Cyndi at a distance for a variety of reasons.
The further question is: can this be helped? Or is it even a problem if the lack of facial or form recognition is acknowledged?
Empathy can pose more questions than it answers.
Bonus tip: make eye contact and smile with any server or retail employee when you have a request or want to make a transaction. If you think your tone of voice might sound harsh, practice until it is soft and courteous.