Why empathy is so important to us.
Empathy is a superpower. It’s our shared connection, central to our development of emotional intelligence.
Length: 850 words
Reading Time: 3 minutes
There is a growing resource of data revealing how an overreliance on digital communication can compromise empathy and cause us to ‘unlearn’ our childhood abilities to interpret and respond to emotional cues.
There’s neurobiological grounding for empathy. The emotional expressions and gestures you see in other people are mapped to your brain in the same way as theirs. So when there’s an emotional ‘vibe’ going on, you pick up on it.
Your sensitivity to emotional cues is just like learning a language or a physical skill. By applying yourself to it, you can hone your sensitivity and emotional reasoning. However, you can also blunt it through bad habits and relying too heavily on media-based communication.
Any situation where you’re not able to receive all the information a person is putting out can potentially deplete you of your emotional sensitivity. It’s best to practice more face-to-face communication when the situation permits. Additionally, you can consciously value those rare occasions when you are able to share space with others. (Whether there’s a pandemic or not. )
Familiarity Breeds Respect
Another thing that affects your ability to empathise is your level of familiarity (and shared experiences) with others. You will be more receptive to a stranger who appears to be from the same social circle as you. Conversely, a person you see every day who doesn’t appear to be like you may fall completely off your emotional radar. You can take steps to establish and maintain some kind of connection (even if it’s as small as making eye contact and an acknowledging nod). By acknowledging and seeing others, you can make great strides in helping to de-colonise your workplace.
The Effect of Media
We can become distant and disconnected from others’ experiences through an over-reliance on media and a growing tendency to narrow your social circle to like-minded people.
Above all, habits like those mentioned above can lull you into a foggy comfort zone and decrease your need to learn from others and share your own experiences. Like a language, unless you use empathy to truly express something, you can lose fluency.
However, when you lose touch with emotional empathy, you don’t become a rigid, unfeeling stone. You just switch over to something a little more mundane called cognitive empathy. You might think of this as ‘regular’ empathy, not the Empathy Superpower you’re capable of. This is your capacity to take another’s point of view, to adopt their perspective and understand what another person is feeling.
Furthermore, the trap of using cognitive empathy alone is that you think you’re doing better than you are. It’s considerably less engaging than compassionately responding with the same emotion as the other person.
Striking a balance between cognitive and emotional empathy is important. As before, leaning too far into cognitive empathy can put up deceptive barriers to meaningful communication. Conversely, if you go too far into emotional empathy without regulating it cognitively, you can become emotionally dysregularised. This will make the situation worse for the person you’re trying to help.
Re-learning What We May Have Lost
Both kinds of empathy can be trained in any kind of social learning scenario. Acting classes are a great resource for this (of course!). I’ve found that a mixed class of beginner and intermediate actors will often work very well with members of the general public.
In an acting class of mixed experience levels, actors of different backgrounds learn from each other and help to model the skills for the general public. I’ve often been surprised at how quickly people adapt and learn from each other once empathy becomes the primary focus rather that “being good” or “getting it right.”
Even though we are all born with it, our latent empathetic nature can be unlearned. Social and behavioural conditioning can change how one person views another, eventually becoming cognitive and intstiutionalised biases. Fortunately, the world is turning the corner on these issues and looking for solutions. We have to re-learn what we gave up.
21st Century Skills
Once the re-education process is underway, empathy helps you build the following life skills (a.k.a. Empathy Superpower);
- Identifying and meeting needs
- Problem solving
- Collaboration in familiar and unfamiliar situations
- Compassionate leadership
- Team-oriented decision-making
To say nothing of their obvious benefits, it takes next to no effort to see how these skills are prioritized in the 21st century workplace. It may be that taking an acting class is the best professional development activity, no matter what career you’re in. No, I’m not talking about doing “trust falls” in the office or Theatre Sports. As fun and constructive as they are, they’re not quite addressing the full issue.
Imagine taking the time and finding the emotional resources to act (and I mean really act) a scene from a truly great play or movie. Don’t think of it as something only professionals should do. If you have the capacity to watch a scene and be moved by it, then you can act it.
The actor, at the highest level of preparation and readiness, is just like the audience. They’re being carried by the story.
I hope I’ve convinced any non-actors who are reading this to consider taking a class to amp up your Empathy Superpower. If you’re an actor, consider inviting a friend from your other job. I think the acting world has a lot to offer the ‘straight’ world.
Cognitive vs. Emotional Empathy, Jodi Clarke, MA, LPC/MHSP, 2020.
How Technology is Harming Our Ability to Feel Empathy, by Dr. Helen Riess, 2019.