When we see other people getting hurt, our brain responds in a characteristic way. The same neural circuits that process first-hand experiences of pain are also activated by images of pain in others. So we might define empathy as the sharing of another person’s feelings: I slam the door shut and it catches my finger, and I wince in pain. My colleague, who sees it happen, feels distressed.
But there is more to human empathy than merely sharing another creature’s pain. Neuroscientists Jean Decety and Philip L. Jackson argue that human empathy requires several components (Decety and Jackson, 2004). In addition to sharing feelings, the empathic person also needs to be capable of:
• A sense of self-awareness and the ability to distinguish one’s own feelings from the feelings of others: When my colleague sees me wince, she feels my pain. But does she understand the source of her discomfort? If my colleague lacks self-reflection, she might not recognize that I am the one in real trouble.
• Being able to regulate one’s own emotional responses: It’s not pleasant to witness someone else’s distress. If empathy were merely about “sharing feelings,” then, we might expect empathic people to withdraw from creatures in distress. To show empathic concern, or sympathy, my friend needs to control her own responses to my pain.
• Taking another person’s perspective: I love going to conferences and events abroad. My colleague has had a fear of flying since she was a child. We find out that we both need to attend an event, which involves flying abroad to. How does my colleague feel when she’s told she has to go, as attending this event is a necessary part of her role. It might be hard for me to recognize my colleagues feelings without understanding her point of view.
There are other factors, too. People are more likely to show empathy if:
• They are on familiar terms with the person
• They perceive similarities between themselves and the person
• They have experienced the person’s circumstances themselves
And our willingness to show empathic concern is ruled by our moral, societal and political beliefs. Who deserves our empathic concern? Societies offer different answers to this question. Very often, the answers are about who’s considered “one of us.” A recent survey of preindustrial societies found that people who feel strong loyalty to their own social group are more willing to consider violence against outsiders. (Cohen et al 2006).
What implications does this have in multicultural workplaces and societies? Much of the time, we give less time and attention to others based on them belonging to another group, race, gender. The frightening thing is, that we are often not aware that we are doing this. Therefore it is essential that as part of every organisation’s staff training, awareness is brought to everyone’s own biases, and beliefs, so that we consciously treat everyone equally and fairly.
Enabling people to examine their own beliefs, biases, attitudes and how these might be blocking relationships and productivity is a very important aspect of all our staff training. See some of our Open Courses for examples.Back to Teams