I was watching the other day a documentary about a serial killer and how he tortured his victims. I hate such types of programs yet what interests me about them is how the criminals they talk about can ‘have the heart’ to hurt fellow human beings or even anything living at all. The documentary explained eventually that when the criminal’s brain was scanned, it was concluded that the special place for Empathy inside his brain had been damaged in an accident when he was a child, for which reason, he was feeling no pity nor repentance while committing those crimes.
This all drove me to wonder ‘WHAT are we without empathy?’, and the reason why I am choosing to use the word ‘what’ as opposed to ‘who’ is because the latter indicates that the individual is still considered a human being, which may entail that he or she may actually have feelings underneath the corrupted crust inside his or her brain.
So ‘what’ do we become without empathy?
In order to answer that, we should have a look at what Empathy means and entails.
Dr. Daniel Goleman in his world-famous book “Emotional Intelligence: Why EQ Matters More Than IQ” mentions an incident in Germany, whereby a bike driver had been hit by a car, and remained laying flat to the side of the road completely ignored. He said drivers in surrounding cars were looking at him without feelings/impressions on their faces awaiting their traffic lights to turn green. It may seem surprising to you or to most of us, but obviously it wasn’t surprising to those fellow drivers who didn’t even care to take that poor biker to the hospital.
Some may say that in this day and age, chivalry has almost disappeared from our glossary. There may not be time for it basically. Also, since time equals money to most of us, then actions that may delay us, can be easily assessed as futile. Some may say that life has become all about money. Others may acknowledge that and still see that there are those who are considered leaders socially who always make this extra step that no one else seems willing to do, without asking anything in return, and despite the fact that he or she may be late to their appointments as a result.
So it boils down to one’s ethics too. So for example, if a manager appreciates the concepts of family, he may not accept that his employees remain after working hours trying to make ends meet, because he may value and acknowledge that his employees actually deserve a rest, family time and right to have a life. Therefore, meanwhile he may push his employees’ performance and urge them to progress with more passion, he would still remind them that work is just part of their lives, and not a reason to forget about life.
However, when we say ethics, we may associate that with a higher brain functionality, one that is totally contradictory to the basic needs (instincts) of a primitive mind. Yet in fact, ethics can also be an organic product of one’s feelings and one’s own level of emotional intelligence. It is like having looking inward towards yourselves and emotions with the same lens, through which you look on other people’s feelings outside of you, thus, being able to establish an understanding or a connection between you and them. The more you learn to discern your emotions, the more expert you become in doing that, which in turn translates into better relationships and success in connecting with others. In other words, it is said that one who understands one’s own feelings is usually more effective in responding to other people’s feelings in return. This goes along the famous quote by Plato: “Know Thyself“.
So empathy basically is discerning your own emotions and learning to discern others’ the same way, to a degree that you put yourself in their place and imagine how it would be to be experiencing what they experience. Sounds too much, especially in this fast-paced age, but actually we see aspects of empathy wherever we go. As a matter of fact, it has been proven scientifically that we are wired for empathy. For example, if we watch someone down the street walking with a heavy stack of books or boxes, we automatically shrink our faces and imagine that we are the ones who are carrying that load.
Empathy is also proven to exit naturally in human from a very young age, like when a child sees another child that’s crying. It automatically starts crying too. If a child sees happy kids, he or she automatically starts mimicking that in return. Even most animals have different degrees of genuine empathy. We can see this in a mother animal caressing her children, or when we see two swans leaning their heads against one another forming a shape of a heart.
So how would a natural quality that allows humans, despite all of their differences (age, race, faith, gender, etc.) connect and unit with one another any time anywhere? How valuable is this unique quality to us? Are we willing to oppress it or improve it? Is it worth stopping to help out someone who seems in dire need of help?
On the other hand, what happens if we oppress our own feelings of empathy? Does this make us less human? What would a person become without empathy? I was thinking of all these questions,and realized that human fixation can be as deep as a black hole. The more one looks inwards, the more experiences one is exposed to. It also depends on the way you are looking. For example, there are those who look inwards with a loner’s attitude, reminiscing of a happy past or negatively dwelling on how unlucky one had always been. The result of such perspective conjures up even more sadness, loneliness, sense of isolation and negativity. Also, too much inward fixation can lead to a major shift of attention to the outside world and the healthy human need to socialize with other people and integrate with new potential happy encounters. When one is too focused on pitying oneself, the less empathy one is going to feel for others, thus the more distant one may become to surrounding happenings and people around one or in the world.
Empathy is said to bring people closer to one another by being able to identify with each other’s feelings and needs. It is also said to be the mother of compassion. Alfred Adler described it as “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.”
On the other hand, individuals with an abusive or aggressive past may lack empathy too, as their past experiences may have turned them into beast-like humans: aggressive, selfish or a victim to one’s own primitive instincts that once they get fulfilled, one may repetitively yearn for more. Some scientist once said such individuals become more like vampires or human predators. Vampires don’t have empathy, and the more they drain a human of blood, the more blood they crave. However, both modes (the introvert and predator) can share one common tendency, which is to constantly seek sensual satisfaction through whichever way possible, and they can become not deterred by ethical or moral inhibitions that a healthy person shuns away from.
So all that brings us to the main question, which is the title of this article: What (not Who) Are We Without Empathy?
“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein
- Making actual progress – (Empathy, Part 2) (131313sketchbookproject.com)
- Social Intelligence and Leadership (lugenfamilyoffice.com)
- Couples In Conflict – EQ Education Helps If Counseling Doesn’t (junctionangermanagement.wordpress.com)
HBR Blog Network
Why Command-and-Control Leadership Is Here to Stay
by Herminia Ibarra | 12:00 PM September 20, 2012
Travelling through Zurich airport, one billboard always catches my eye. The ad for IWC luxury watches says “Engineered for men who don’t need a copilot.”
My friends who study advertising as both a reflection and shaper of cultural norms would not disagree with my impression: We talk about the death of command and control leadership, and praise the rise of a new, more collaborative, breed of leader. But when push comes to shove, being in control sells. Collaborative is vegan; directive is meat and potatoes.
When I was a PhD student at Yale, I studied with one of the fathers of situational leadership, Victor Vroom. In the 1960′s Vic developed the then-famous Vroom-Yetton model of leadership, a decision tree in which a few simple parameters (does the leader have all the relevant information, are the followers knowledgeable or inexperienced?) allowed the leader to choose from a menu of styles ranging from A1 (the most autocratic decision-making) to G2 (group-based decision-making, the most participative) the one most suited for the situation. An avid boatman, Vic had a large sailboat parked in the Caribbean. Its name: A1. On my boat, I call the shots.
An early proponent of participative management, Vic also knew when and how to be in charge. No one quarrels much with the wisdom of situational leadership anymore. Even if we can no longer pin it on a few simple dimensions — the world today is much more turbulent and complex — we all know that what works depends on the context.
The questions today are how we select “horses for courses,” and perhaps more importantly, how we assess whether talented individuals are capable of broadening their repertory of styles so that they can be effective in a wider array of situations as their careers evolve.
In the business school classes I teach, almost every leader we analyze is “situationally limited:” Her natural tendency tilts either towards the directive or towards the collaborative end of the spectrum or his past experience has rewarded one over the other. Inevitably we ask, is this way of leading sustainable as the company grows? Once the turnaround is over? As the environment grows harsher?
My students’ questions apply equally to the collaborators and the autocrats. But over the years I have noticed a subtlety. We easily infer that a competent autocrat can learn to become more collaborative. We have a harder time believing that a competent collaborator can become more directive.
In the end, we seem to want evidence that a leader can do without a co-pilot before we are willing to groom him or her for more collaborative roles. I wonder if that is not one reason why command and control isn’t dead at all but alive and well, at least at Zurich airport.
More blog posts by Herminia Ibarra
More on: Collaboration, Leadership, Leadership development
Herminia Ibarra is a professor of organizational behavior and the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at Insead. She is the author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business Review Press, 2003).
I’ve been watching lately some Hollywood’s box office movies. I soon realized there were many similar messages they were sending to the young audience they are intended for, for example:
- Bullying individuals were pretty people, whether boys or girls.
- People with brains (not particularly keen on partying wild and showing off) were either ugly or ‘needed a makeover’ (needed to be fixed in one way or another).
- Promiscuous individuals are more popular and successful (mostly well off).
- Dressing as minimally as possible (especially if one has a great body) is a sign that the guy or girl is attractive, confident, sexy, cool, popular and successful, like a guy with his shirt off or a girl whose dress is open and short, etc.
These were some of the messages that jumped out at me repetitively as I was watching.
This has also brought me to think that perfecting all those requirements (great body, money, fancy clothes or cars, etc) to look and be successful or popular do not really lead to happiness. Most of the time, those perfect-looking people are looking for something that makes them feel complete inside. If they couldn’t find it, they constantly look for sedatives (a wild fling, drugs, pills, alcohol, etc.) to help them get through time, forget and move on. They also look ‘cool’ as they do so. So this does highlight the spiritual/emotional gap that results from their lifestyle and the daily choices they are making.
This led me to contemplate the difference between vanity and gratitude. I realized that being vain means contributing every blessing one has to oneself, such as saying to oneself: I am beautiful because I am better, I have a nice body because I am not lazy and I workout, I have a big house and a big car because I am successful and rich, I have a sexy partner because I wouldn’t settle with anything else, I have a career because I want power, I have children because I want others to see the great parent I am and that I am ‘on-top-of-it-all’, I have great health and I am powerful, etc. Meanwhile, as this sounds like self-confidence, it does also imply a great degree of vanity and superiority; like I am the origin of everything I am and have. What contradicts this idea, however, is that there are ‘other’ attractive, hard-working, ambitious, confident, and cool people who may not be as successful, rich, healthy, fertile, etc. as they are.
I believe we are constantly driven to believe that we are the cause of our own blessings, like the recent books titles implying that we are our own god, genie, diva, miracle-maker, etc. Whereas achieving one’s goals may lead to one’s happiness, it does not imply that the achievement of our goals ‘made possible’ was entirely attributed to us. What popular movies usually imply is that when you are, perfect-looking, sexy and smart, you are bound to succeed in life. On the other hand, I have seen and known real people with real lives who may just be doing a bit more than what those in movies do, and they may not look as 100% perfect as they do.
We are encouraged to believe that ‘things’ make us happy, but it is the opposite; it is us who bestow meanings upon things, and not vice versa. That being said, I don’t negate the psychological factor that does make us feel more confident when we achieve a goal, like having a great body, sexy clothes, wild friends, or being popular in our circle, etc. Yet, these are not happiness-making factors. Therefore, feeling vain because of the blessings you have does not mean you are happy or complete, especially that nothing is permanent in life; health, wealth, beauty, a successful career, etc. may be lost at any time, as we have seen during this recent recession, which has led a lot of people to fall prey to depression, mainly because when one sees oneself at the centre of that self-portrait, one is only focusing on one’s self and the fulfillment of one’s needs, wishes and desires. This emphasizes that one lives by oneself in this world, in isolation from others and ‘their’ needs and wishes that we can help them with. In other words, vanity thinking is seeking happiness through attaining proclaimed happiness requirements without seeing or caring for anyone else in the picture but oneself. It is the opposite of empathy, which growing our sense of self-worth and genuine happiness through seeking a noble life purpose through helping others and being attuned to their needs and wishes.
In coaching, coaches are encouraged to support clients to recognize blessings (minimal to bigger ones) in their daily life. They say it is proven in the science of the human psyche that feeling grateful significantly enhances one’s brain capability to think more productively and positively, and elevates negative emotions, like sadness, sorrow, anger, etc.
Feeling grateful means – even if you don’t believe that there is a God in the world who distributes blessings upon people – that you appreciate and count the privileges you have got, i.e. that you feel privileged because you have so and so of blessings that other people who are just as smart, successful, charming, attractive, healthy, fertile, well-off, etc. may not have. Therefore, when one gets oneself out of the centre of the fancy self-portrait one has drawn for oneself for years, and starts thinking that whatever one has is a privilege that deserves feeling grateful for. Then, one starts feeling that one has been endowed with them, and not ‘entitled’ to them.
This offers a fresh perspective on life and everything you have. If we believe we are entitled to what we have, we may take them for granted and become blind to the minimal and bigger privileges we have got. However, if we see everything we have as a privilege, then we start thinking positively about everything we consider about our lives, bodies, health, partners, etc. Simply because we start appreciating what we have, we grow our sense of satisfaction about it. This is where the feeling of gratitude develops. However, I’ve had someone asking me: But if I don’t believe there is a God in this world, who will I feel grateful for?
It was a pretty tricky question, because I personally do believe that there is a God in this world, and my feeling of satisfaction and gratitude towards everything He has blessed me with is the secret behind my resilience in life, despite all challenges. I pondered upon the guy’s question, then decided to ask him back: If you don’t believe there is a God in this world, who would you feel grateful for? It can’t be you who is the causing factor of everything you have got. For example, you were not the reason behind your good looks when you were born. Nor is it up to you to stop yourself from having cancer or an accident, because we have seen perfectly healthy people dying due to both of these despite their healthy, organic and safe lifestyles. If you didn’t die in an accident or by cancer, old age will do the trick. But how do you know until when you are going to live?
He was silent for a while, and contemplated my questions, then said: I definitely feel I am grateful for having what I have, simply as I see my friends don’t have half of what I have, even though we almost worked in the same companies and graduated from similar reputable universities. Then, we went on to talk about luck. This is definitely taking me away from the core subject of this article, but it was a conversation worth mentioning, as it helped us delve into deep thoughts and questions typically people – on the run – don’t bother themselves to think about.
All in all, vanity is feeling we ‘control’ what we have, and this is a false conception. The recession has taught us that nothing is fixed and permanent. Not only that, but also diseases, airplane crashes, earthquakes, etc. Vanity – or thinking one is the source of his/her own blessings – may lead one to severe depression if things do no go the way s/he intended them to do.
On the other hand, gratitude is appreciating and seeing life for what it is. This inspires us to see even the most mundane blessings as gifts that we did not sweat for. For example, silence at night is a great gift. I have lived in countries where building and constructions workers do not stop working on weekends or even in the evening when people put their kids to sleep. Other countries are war-stricken, and kids have to sleep despite sounds of bombs and gunshots that become a habitual happening in their neighborhoods. Not only silence at night, but on the weekends, in the evening, the ability to clearly hear birds singing early in the morning, the soft breeze that gently touches your cheeks as you stand in front of a water landscape, the beauty of nature, the cuteness of our kids, the genuine care of our loved ones, our ability to hear, see, touch and smell, etc. There is so much to be grateful for, and I do not believe we – people on the run – are the causing factor of them all. We are too busy to see these simple blessings but they are there. Believe it or not, it is us who can make the choice to appreciate them or not, to think that despite any hardships we may be going through there are still some good things to derive from them and to enjoy around us, and finally, I personally find the gift of life as the best gift ever, because every minute is a chance to turn oneself life around the way you want. This is an opportunity that is unavailable in any other domain in our lives (work, parenthood, commitments, loans, etc.)
What do you think?
I’ve been wondering all day what makes one say “Enough is enough”?
When does one draw the line between what’s been going on in the past and what will happen in the future?
Where does the decisions to stop accepting old patterns, conjure up a long-awaited strength, and look for a better alternative, come from?
Does it come from our hearts, minds or souls? Or is it a mixture of all?
I recall in the past that whenever I didn’t listen to my intuition, which was telling me to do or reject doing something, I always ended up regretting it. Therefore, a long time ago, I learned that whenever there was a contradiction between my heart and mind, to always follow my intuition (i.e. heart or hunch).
The mind can be tricked yet it is there to serve a purpose. Most people across history have believed that emotions are there to delude us; that following them leads to misery. Therefore, mind has always been given the preference and the value to be labelled as ‘the decision-maker’ and the ‘manager’ of everything that has been going on in our brains.
Yet, what is science is proving nowadays is that the most authentic resource of our true preferences towards matters comes from our emotions. They are like miraculously individual inner compasses that are not lured or affected by opinions, appearances, benefits, etc. Each person has an inner compass that points in an independent direction that is not ruled by society or one’s mind. It talks to us through the inner hunches we may experience. That is why it is such a waste of resource and chance for authenticity to ignore those hunches, and follow what you think is ‘logical’, just because your mind is telling you so.
Listening to one’s mind is like relying on a traffic controller to shepherd your thoughts through directions it thinks they logically fit into. However, combining both, emotions and mind power, one can harness two key resources that can best lead us toward what we really want and align them with where we truly wish to go.
Our minds may force us to accept ‘realities’ as a given, and they may lead us to seek and follow a path that deep inside we may not want to be moving in. Our emotions never sleep or lie. They’re always there, and they tell us what our honest attitudes are toward things, yet we mostly choose not to listen to them out of fear to lose our way. Society has created this fear, but has it really allowed us to listen to our own intuition about things? Are we aware enough of our values and life purpose, to an extent where we’d prefer to listen to our inner compasses as opposed to just go with the flow or moving on autopilot?
I believe that no matter how much we may repress our inner hunches (intuition, true selves, etc.), they eventually come forward in a form of rebellion against our own brains and lives. This is where we may choose to draw the line between what we thought was good, and what we really want to be doing instead.
So what do you think? When would you draw the line and decide enough is enough?