Is EMPATHY intrinsic or learnt?

My last article focused on mastering the skill of giving feedback by taking Key Steps to WIN FASTER™. I had promised to write about getting and receiving feedback this week but I’ve decided to go a little deeper into one of the Key Steps of giving effective feedback, which is EMPATHY! This is in honour of Mother’s Day because, for many of us, this is where the foundation of empathy was laid. More and more, the research shows that empathy is the most important skill of leadership and contributes to positive outcomes. To all the caring mothers and mother figures — biological or otherwise — you helped pave the path of empathy. I hope the love was returned in abundance yesterday. I salute you!

In times of crisis, we often see the most incredible displays of empathy. There have been many during the war on Ukraine. Many years ago, a New Zealand search and rescue team heading to Japan (to help after a magnitude 9 earthquake and devastating tsunami) said they were pleased to be returning the favour because Japan had sent teams there in the aftermath of the Christchurch quake. While many were paralysed with grief the morning following the Paris attacks, a huge line of those willing to give blood formed across the street and a 69-year-old man reminded the media of what French solidarity truly meant when he said, “They spill blood, we give blood.”

Do we see enough empathy in our every ordinary day? Can we cultivate it or is it intrinsic and some are just fortunate to be born empathetic? This is the age-old nature vs. nurture debate. Let’s shed some light and take Key Steps to… ‘be the difference that makes the difference.’

  1. We are naturally predisposed to empathy. Did you know that children are naturally predisposed to empathy? For example, new-borns will cry when they hear other babies crying and toddlers will often spontaneously offer their blankets or other comfort items if they see someone else upset. But this natural inclination — just like children’s natural inclination to learn language — requires key environmental exposures to develop. The most important of these is nurturing, responsive parenting. Babies whose needs for touch, comfort and soothing are not met regularly by their primary caregivers will have difficulty developing empathy — just as babies who aren’t exposed to speech will not be able to learn to speak, so…
  2. Empathy develops from empathy. Although some people seem to be born with naturally higher degrees of empathy, we can indeed teach our children (and ourselves) to be more empathetic and create a more caring planet. It is clear that empathy develops from the experience of empathy — not from suffering. We tend to think of empathy as something that comes from knowing what it’s like to feel pain, but the origins of empathy are in shared nurture. This is why it’s impossible to spoil a child by responding to him or her — and why punishment doesn’t make bullies into nicer people. People are most empathetic when they feel calm and safe: if your own needs aren’t being met, it’s harder to think of someone else’s.
  3. We can teach and learn empathy. I’ve seen initial low empathy scores (some as low as < 40 on the Bar-One EQi) increase dramatically to very healthy scores (above 100 and many above 105) after people attending emotional intelligence training. It is not as straightforward as just working on empathy, although that is a great start and https://t.ly/BreneBrownEmpathy is a great clip that advocates for really pausing, connecting to others, staying out of judgement, acknowledging others feelings and reflecting their feelings. When we do this, we become more socially attractive. This might come as a surprise, but it makes sense. When we display empathy, people feel more satisfied with the conversation and, since we are social creatures, being able to navigate social situations successfully contributes to our overall sense of belonging, happiness and well-being. In addition, empathic listeners more easily foster trust, so they often benefit by attracting opportunities that contribute to their personal and professional success. In essence, empathy is one of the key ingredients of a happy and fulfilling life. In my experience, working with thousands of people over more than 20 years, there are many factors can block us from being empathetic such as anxiety, depression, burnout, bias and limiting beliefs like empathy equalling endorsement or selective empathy to name a few. The latter is dangerous and important to uncover in coaching as the person might be blind to the fact that need to…
  4. Active seek out and stop selective empathy. Selective empathy is dangerous because it enables exclusion based on race, religion, ethnicity, values and so on. Empathising with one group and refusing empathy to others has led to many atrocities in history. We are seeing it in Ukraine as reported in Ukraine conflict: Selective empathy harms every refugee, white or otherwise (trtworld.com). “Many TV correspondents, particularly those who have white skin and blue eyes, have applied their racist lens to the crisis, describing the suffering of Ukrainian refugees as “different” from that of Arab, Asian or African refugees. In some cases, they unabashedly called the Ukrainian refugees “more civilised” than their non-European counterparts… Ukrainian civilians making Molotov cocktails and arming themselves with state-given machine guns were described as “freedom fighters” and “heroes,” which from a neutral perspective is an apt description. But the same Western media applies different framing … They paint every Palestinian resisting Israeli occupation with arms with the same brush and conveniently label them as “terrorists” for defending their land.

I hope I’ve given you some food for thought and some motivation to deepen your own skills of empathy and be a model for others. If you’d like more information about how we work with leaders, you can watch…

And feel free to reach out to collette@keysteps.co.za as it would be an honour and privilege to work with you and take Key Steps together to…

‘be the difference that makes the difference.’

Namaste,

Sharon

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Dr Sharon King Gabrielides

Dr Sharon King Gabrielides

Sharon is a dynamic facilitator, speaker and executive coach with over 20 years’ experience in leadership development and organisational transformation.