The virtue traditionally associated with shoulder squeezes and self-sacrifice is more powerful than you think. Photo: Stocksy
Can you feel that? It's called empathy and it's having a moment. Experts have discovered that putting yourself in someone else's shoes is not just an important life skill, it's also intrinsic to happiness.Author Brene Brown calls empathy a 'sacred space' where you climb down into another person's hurt. This is crucial because it fosters connection – something sympathy alone can't do. If that seems a little touchy-feely, stay with me, because the virtue traditionally associated with shoulder squeezes and self-sacrifice is more powerful – and surprising - than you think.
Empathy helps you get ahead at work
Are you familiar with the saying 'People are hired for their IQ and fired for their EQ?' I'm sure I don't need to mention a certain Rhodes Scholar here to prove my point. EQ is dominated by two characteristics: self-awareness and social competence, ie, empathy. And it's the way to succeed. A recent Forbes article called empathy 'the force that moves businesses forward'. Georg Vielmetter, co-author of a study on business leadership, told the Washington Post ,
'The time of the Alpha Male, of the dominant, typically male leader who knows everything, who gives direction to everybody and sets the pace, whom everybody follows — this time is over.'
Instead, says Vielmetter, a new model has emerged wherein managers care about their employee's emotional wellbeing just as much as their productivity, (while managers who remain insular and aloof fail). Which makes sense -- when you can properly understand your employee's point of view, you're able to motivate them accordingly. When you find out what makes your clients or competition tick, you can not only predict what their next move will be; you get to influence them, too. Which is kinda manipulative, but then again, so are corporations.
Happy people aren't very skilled at it
Although they think they are, bless them. In a recent study, researchers found that if you're the sort of person who always sees the glass as half-full, then it's harder for you to see it looking half-empty in others.
Their happy radars don't pick up a frequency so low. It might be tempting to conclude that the reason the 'solutions-oriented' male can't empathise properly is because he doesn't feel sadness the way others do. You know that dude, who, when you vent, reacts by brainstorming loudly over your tears? Yeah, well. He's not drawing from a deep well of gladness or even strength, but rather, discomfort. Which brings us to Point 3 …
Women aren't naturally better at empathising than men.
Did you read that study on women being more empathetic toward their male partners? I hate to burst your sexist belief bubble but there are reasons as to why men, generally speaking, tend to be less empathetic. The most important is that empathy is taught, usually in early childhood.
The greater implication is that if it can be taught, it's not strictly genetic. Moreover, you can learn it at any time! As Gwen Dewar, PhD and founder of Parenting Science writes, 'While studies confirm that females report greater feelings of empathy, that doesn't mean they experience more empathy.
"It's likely that cultural training plays a big role in the way that girls and boys behave when they feel empathy." Put simply, men feel it, they just can't express it.
So, if you're one of those blokes who finds it difficult to be 'be there' for your lady love, it's not pity you're allergic to, but rather emotional exposure. And why? Well, it's likely that when you expressed your own sad feelings as a child, you were ignored or shamed. Brene Brown calls empathy a 'vulnerable choice' because in order to tune in to another's distress, you have to find your own sad feelings first. And guess which gender has traditionally been taught to hide vulnerability?
Narcissism can be curbed by empathy
This is not a cure for NPD, which is a serious disorder. I'm referring to that person in your life who has a tough time caring about anything that doesn't orbit their planet. They're what you call the 'sub clinical' narcissist and they tend not to 'get' other people's struggles.
Remember when Kim Kardashian publicly chastised her brother Rob for being overweight? Yah, that's a classic SCN move. But a recent study found that these empathy-challenged folks could be enlightened via a simple question: 'How do you think they feel?' That's right - you can actually prod them toward kindness. Hang in there, Rob!
Reading fiction can make you more empathetic
Did you cry when Beth died in Little Women? Well, shake off that shame because you were exercising your empathy muscles. "When people read stories we invoke personal experiences" is how psychologist Raymond Mar explains it.
Or, to put it another way, the characters might not be real but the feelings are. Novels are immersive experiences so you can bask in that feeling of empathy for longer than you would, say, an, uh, article online. But even if all you do is 'share' an article that moves you, have a little compassion for yourself. Empathy is still empathy no matter how miniscule.
Indeed, if you take away one thing, remember: It's better to say 'I don't know what to say' than say nothing at all.