bring people together, development, leadership

Empathy – Are we losing it? Why should we preserve it?

Humans are wired to connect. Is our view of connecting skewed and impacting our ability to empathize?  In today’s world, we perceive connecting to be a text, an email, Facebook friending, and even a basic “like” for someone’s tweet.  But does this lack of face to face connection hinder empathy development of current and future generations?

Before we dive into the details, let’s step back and understand what empathy is and how simple interactions can help to build it.

Empathy [noun]

em·pa·thy | \ˈem-pə-thē \

Definition: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner also : the capacity for this [1]

For some people that definition makes them cringe. They may think, are you really asking me to be sensitive and experience feelings?  Ugh!  Developing the ability to be empathetic can open doors.  The doors can be open in the most simple ways.  Fundamental interactions such as a handshake, smile, eye contact or even a simple hello can foster a connection and the ability to empathize with one another.  In the world of business, many say that a handshake will seal the deal.  Sanda Dolcos says this about studies on handshakes, “We found that it not only increases the positive effect toward a favorable interaction, but it also diminishes the impact of a negative impression.  Many of our social interactions may go wrong for a reason or another, and a simple handshake preceding them can give us a boost and attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings.” [3]  Even a simple handshake can reduce the possibilities of adverse effects in business.  In the hospitality industry, they teach that interactions should follow the 10 and 5 Staff Rule. The 10 and 5 Rule states that anytime a guest is within ten feet of a staff member, the staff member should make eye contact.  When a staff member is within five feet from a guest, a “hello” should accompany the eye contact.  The beauty of these actions is that they are free!

Now that we have made a case to slide into the empathetic world without too much sensitivity and feelings.  The questions that next strike me are: can we learn empathy,  and are these face to face interactions required?  UCLA research says, “While empathy skills can be learned with coaching and practice, recent neuroscience research has found that humans are, quite literally, wired to connect.  Imitation is often thought of in its most overt form, like a great impression of a movie character.  But recent research from UCLA shows that imitation is more fundamental and pervasive than we think.  We imitate others even when we aren’t aware of it.” [2]  A blog hosted by The College of Health Care Professions stated, “…in order to be empathetic, one must learn to read others’ faces, particularly the eyes.  People are not born with this ability; they develop it.” [4]  Many other pieces of evidence agree that empathy can be learned and should be grown.  If we look to imitate others, can this be done effectively on a virtual platform? My thought is that some capabilities can be learned by listening to voices, intently asking questions, and politely requesting to give your thoughts.  My experience says that the majority of the population is not stepping through their day with this deliberate care. My theory is that people are capable but don’t take the time to execute with deliberate care nor have they been taught these skills.  Instead, past generations have been taught shortcuts of reading faces and body expressions.  I hesitate to generalize but will in this case. Past generations used visual cue but future generations tend to live a less face to face lifestyle.  Are the past generations setting behavior to imitate that next generations can apply to learn empathy?  In addition, are we all pulling out of our devices and saying hello?  Are we making eye contact with those that work with us?  Are we leveraging all those free actions that can build empathy?  “A study by the University of Michigan found that college students today are showing less empathy than previous decades, a 40% decline in fact.” [4]  Is this loss associated with the fact that students aren’t connecting in-person?

With the future of empathy unclear, I close with some thoughts.  I am convinced the following statements are true for most people:

  • There are benefits to employing the ability to empathize.  In the health industry, empathy connects to better patient outcomes among other benefits. [5]  In the government, empathy can shrink the possibility of misunderstandings and avoid unnecessary conflicts.  In day to day life, empathy can create a bond with two groups to make the world a stronger place.
  • There are some simple actions that can help to grow empathy in a relationship.
  • Empathy can be learned.
  • Exiting the device world isn’t realistic nor is it necessary.

Two questions that still remain for me:

  • Are we setting the right behaviors for imitation of the next generation to learn empathy?
  • How will the “electronic” age affect our ability to learn and show empathy?

Consider the above thoughts on preserving empathy.  I also invite you to build on this post.  An interactive audience enables learning for us all.




[3] Sanda Dolcos, Keen Sung, Jennifer J. Argo, Sophie Flor-Henry, Florin Dolcos. The Power of a Handshake: Neural Correlates of Evaluative Judgments in Observed Social Interactions. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2012; 1 DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_00295



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