Empathy is a practice and priority, not a mere psychological mechanism. Practicing empathy is a way of being in the world, creating a safe space of openness, acceptance and toleration. In the face of a contagion of Omicron, we need a contagion of empathy. Empathy is contagious. This is a condition you actually want to share with someone else, especially someone who seems to need some empathy – all the while being clear to set firm boundaries against bullying, delusional thinking, and compassion fatigue. Keep in mind this list is a top ten “count down,” so if you want to know what is #1, fast forward to the bottom.
Here are my choices and predictions for the top ten trends in empathy for the year 2023.
10 – Empathy for the jurors in the trial of the century. The prediction is that Mr T will stick to his story – “we was robbed” – even after he is indicated, believing there is no such thing as bad publicity. The prospective defendant is innocent until proven guilty and so on. However, it is noteable that a former-NSA analyst was sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2019 for hoarding official documents [https://www.nextgov.com/cybersecurity/2019/07/ex-nsa-contractor-serve-9-years-hoarding-classified-information/158564/]. This seems open and shut. Nevertheless, this trend is about the jurors and not the defendant. This promises to be a long, headline-grabbing trial, and the jury will have to be sequestered, cut off from news, and, subjected to a lot of legal jargon. Being without Facebook and Twitter and other social media promises to be a real source of suffering. Okay, just kidding, but for some people, maybe it is. While the challenges of finding an unbiased jury are not trivial, all that is needed for a fair trial are twelve people who are willing to set aside their opinions and look at the facts from the point of view of the law as defined for them by the presiding judge. That sounds like creating a space for critical thinking and taking multiple points of view, the latter the folk definition of empathy.
9 – Empathy in time of war becomes Red Team not kindness. All the empathy in the world is not going to help anyone if one country invades another with a list of intellectuals, business people, and politicians to be arrested and killed. That noted, the need for helping, compassion, and good works of all kinds is still on the critical path to building a better world. Yet in time of war or threat of war, the power of empathy consists in putting oneself in the shoes of the opponent, thinking like the opponent, and thereby anticipating and thwarting the opponent’s moves. Putting oneself in the opponent’s shoes requires taking off one’s own shoes first. Never underestimate the power of empathy – never – yet empathy does not work very well with psychopaths, bullies, totalitarian dictators, and the criminally insane. Many of these individuals will take the affective, bottom up empathy and use it against you. Therefore, empathic engagement must be limited to cognitive empathy – use critical thinking to try to figure out what the Other is thinking and feeling in order to intervene in a way that is useful according the standards of a humane community.
8 – Elon “44 billion up in smoke” Musk gets empathy for his employees, customers, and stakeholders. And if you believe prediction, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I would like to sell to you. The empathic truth of this admittedly cynical prediction is that many of the things that make a person good at business make him or her relatively poor empathizers. Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing as the leaders get entangled in innovating the technologies in new products and services, solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the software required to sustain operations. Yet empathy is the ultimate Capitalist Tool. Empathy is on the critical path for serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), taking the perspective of the competition [not exactly empathy but close enough?], building teams and being a leader who actually has followers. Saying that the purpose of business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is to breathe. Definitely do not stop breathing. The purpose of business is to deliver value and satisfaction to customers. Then the revenue shows up. When the ontology of empathy exposes it as the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes nearly synonymous with expanding business. For example, building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, team building, are the basis for brand loyalty, employee commitment, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind? Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy, though ultimately both are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. “CEO” no longer means “Chief Executive Officer,” but “Chief Empathy Officer.” This time one can hear the groans—from the executive suite, not the cubicles.:
Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/6nngUdemxAnCd2B2wfw6Q6 Empathy is one of those things that are hard to delegate. This role shows up like another job responsibility with which the CEO of the organization is tasked—along with everything else that she already has to do. As if she did not already have enough alligators snapping at various parts of her anatomy, one has to be nice about it, too? But of course empathy is not niceness, though it is not about being un-nice. It is about knowing what others are experiencing, because one has a vicarious experience and then processing that further to expand boundaries and exercise leadership.
7 – Etiquette Gurus and celebrity life coaches go back to school to learn empathy. The latest poster child for this trend is Sara Jane Ho, who reportedly broke up with her boyfriend of four years over text, and rationalizes it with a meme about context, in which the context sounded like she was busy making a Netflix show. This is right up there with trend #8, getting fired by a Twitter tweet. The context, according to the author of the article, Maureen O’Connor, was that Ms Ho’s eyes were getting puffy from crying, and she would not “look good” on her Netflix show. Empathy is a high bar and one does not get there every day. If Ms Ho’s resume is to be believed, she is a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, Georgetown, Harvard (attended), and now a Netflix sensation. One speculates that she is a survivor of a Tiger Mom or Bootcamp Dad (or both), and may herself benefit from getting a good listening at the side of a committed mentor. Based on the review of Ms Ho’s project by Maureen O’Connor [ https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/02/style/sara-jane-ho-mind-your-matters.html], she (Ms Ho) exemplifies the kind of etiquette which is a disguised application of sadism, hostility, aggression, and one-upmanship. While I do not know the details and maybe I am missing the humor, but so far, all these people are easy to dislike. You go to take off your coat and you can’t because there is a knife in your back. There is nothing wrong – but something is definitely missing – empathy.
6 – Empathy is a practice not a mere psychological mechanism. Empathy is the practice of authentically relating to the other person. The practice of empathy is a way of being – being with and in relation with others. Many of the misunderstandings of empathy – especially in the form of compassion, pity, emotional contagion – can be traced to treating the practice of empathy merely as a psychological mechanism. There is nothing wrong with this as such. However, what gets missed is the relational quality of empathy. Drive out bullying, hostility, aggression, bad language, and empathy naturally comes forth. People want to be empathic if given half a chance.
5 – Empathy expands for the True Believer, but not agreement with the conspiracy or delusion. The criteria for identifying the True Believer is he or she doubles down. When the space does not arrive from Alpha Centauri – or your candidate does not win – the True Believer does not say, “I might have been mistaken and maybe I need to look at my assumptions or inquire into other scenarios.” The True Believer doubles down – “We was robbed!” “We will catch the next space ship!” It does no good – none – to disagree with the True Believer or to argue or reason, because the delusion or conspiracy theory is holding together the True Believer’s personality. To give up the delusion would be to give up the personality, to risk the disintegration of who the person is. What to do about it? Teach critical thinking. Both empathy and critical thinking create a space of acceptance and tolerance in the context of which the power of the delusion starts to shrink. More on this in the next trend.
4 – Empathy and critical thinking form an alliance. It is a bold statement of the obvious that the ongoing breakdown in community standards bodes ill for a cultural and political and public conversation context in which disputants engage in near delusional disagreement on basic quantitative facts such as the rules of etiquette, basic science such as the biology of vaccinations, gender distinction (or not), the basic results of elections, and so on. Though it is not a quick solution, it is hard to think of a better one: teach skills in critical thinking such as assessing facts against sources, evaluating the reliability of sources, reporters, informants, and so on, against prior performance, checking validity and logic of arguments, and engaging enlarged thinking in taking the point of view of the other person, especially if the person (or group) disagrees with one. (See Jonathan Haber, (2020), Critical Thinking. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.) Taking different points of view, of course, is the basic folk definition of empathy. But do not forget to take off one’s own shoes before trying on the other’s or one will get projection, not empathy.
3 – Translation replaces projection as the underlying model for empathy. “Translation” as in translating between languages or between different artistic media or different signaling systems. In short, psychologism – psychology in the negative sense – is replaced by the linguistic speech act of translating the other person’s experience into one’s own and then giving it back (empathically) to the other. This paradigm of empathy as translation is arguably at the same level of generality as empathy as projection, but remained undeveloped until the rise of hermeneutics along a separate trajectory. The modern innovators of interpersonal empathy such as Carl Rogers (1902–1987) might be read as leap-frogging back to the original sense of entering the other’s world in order to translate it into the first person, subject’s own terms. The translation model of empathy (credited to Johann Herder (1744 – 1803) of whom one rarely hears today) also fits well with what Gordon Allport (1897–1967) and Kenneth Clark (1903–1983) were doing in arraying empathy against racism and prejudice in expanding the boundaries of community by empathically translating between them. An entire possible alternate history of empathy, as yet unwritten, opens up at this point – empathy as translation between persons.
2 – Empathy for the Amazon rain forest grows and reaches a critical mass, but will its critical mass be enough or too late to overtake the “critical mass” of green house gases. The challenge is that global warming does not live like an actual possibility for most people, who cannot imagine such an outcome – for example, just as in December 2019 no one could envision the 2020 global pandemic. Empathy is oxygen for the soul. If the human psyche does not get empathy, it suffocates. Climate changes makes this metaphor actual. If humanity does not drown as the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheaths slide into the oceans, humans will suffocate as the levels of green house gases and heat overwhelm temperate habitats. There is no Planet B. Empathy is a bridge: The bridge between the gridlocked present and a seemingly impossible-to-imagine future is empathy. The empathic moment is an act of imagination. That is the interesting thing about empathy. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. It is inclusive. Lots more work needs to be done on this connection. For purposes of this list of predictions, this “shout out” will have to suffice. For specific actionable recommendations, see David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet, now streaming on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80216393
2a – Vaccine deniers get empathy and say: “Oh, I wish I were already experiencing the minor side effects of the latest booster shot instead of systemic organ breakdown!” People get the latest booster against Covid, parents get their children the measles and polio and other shots the children need for school, which gets into people’s arms at an accelerating rate. Biological science continues to produce small, medium, and large “miracles,” even as basic health care services for citizen’s struggle. People become medical doctors and nurses and enter the healthcare field because they want to make a difference. They experience an empathic calling to intervene to reduce the pain and suffering in the world. Then these same people get caught up in the faceless, unempathic bureaucracy of a healthcare system where capitation means doctors have to see an unworkable number of patients a day – four an hour for eight hours. Using empathy and medical ethics, the doctors push back saying: “I am required by medical ethics to spend as much time with the patient as is needed to get the patient the medical treatment they require – and are entitled to be paid for it.
2b – Men lead from empathy in the struggle against domestic violence (DV). When powerful men such as Bezos, Musk, Ellison, Gates, Biden, Milley, clean up their failures of leadership and take action saying “Violence against women anywhere – home or work or anywhere – is unacceptable and here are the resources for intervention,” then a breakthrough will occur. Men will find their voice and speak out even more loudly and provide leadership against domestic violence to those of their own gender who just do not get it.
While women have provided the leadership and will continue to do so, powerful men must step up and provide guidance to their fellows about proper boundaries and respect for them in relationships. This is ongoing. What is new: powerful men step up and speak out and provide leadership among men in establishing respect for boundaries in creating communication, affection, and affinity.
For data- and empathy-based innovations that have occurred in the past year in the fight against domestic violence see No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. Some sixty percent of domestic violence (DV) victims are strangled at some point during an abusive relationship (p. 65): Big red flag that the perpetrator is escalating in the direction of homicide/Femicide.
Empathy almost always has its uses when tuned to the specific circumstances. Yet empathy is unhelpful in dealing with sociopaths, psychopaths, and [most] bullies. They take whatever empathy you give them and use it the better to manipulate. Top down, cognitive empathy – yes – to understand whether they are a threat and are going to escalate; but therapeutic empathy – “i get you, bro” – is often counter productive. What is productive? Set limits. Set firm boundaries – and enforce them.
Turns out that only some 15% of the victims in one study had injuries visible enough to photograph for the police report (p. 66). Most strangulation injuries are internal – hence, the title. Good news/bad news: The Fatality Review Board is an idea that is getting attention with law enforcement and the local states attorney function. More progress and action is needed in this area.
(1) People stop saying, “I just don’t get empathy” and commit to the practice of empathy. Empathy is a practice and, like all practices, it can be improved by training. Remove the obstacles to empathy such as cynicism and bullying—and empathy comes forth. Remove the resistances to empathy and empathy naturally and spontaneously expands. Most people are naturally empathic.
The one-minute empathy training is trending: Eliminate the obstacles to empathy and a space of acceptance and toleration spontaneously emerges.
Most people do not sufficiently appreciate this: people are born with a deep and natural capacity for empathy, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do arithmetic and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does not expand our empathy or our community. It does not help the cause of expanded empathy that rule-making and the drumbeat of compliance are growing by leaps and bounds.
The work at hand? Remove the blocks to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, over-identification, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, censorship, denial, manipulation, competing to be the biggest victim, insults, injuries to self-esteem, and narcissistic merger—and empathy spontaneously expands, develops, and blossoms. Now that is going to require some work!
Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the barriers are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. There is no catch, no “gotcha.” That is the one-minute empathy training, pure-and-simple.
References and Notes
“The One-Minute Empathy Training”
May I introduce myself? Here is a short introduction to who i am and my commitment to empathy, including a one-minute empathy training. Total run time: about five minutes. Further data: See also http://www.LouAgosta.com]
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project