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The Importance of Empathy

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Empathy, apparently the definition is more complex than I thought. However, in the context of the workplace environment I believe the following suits best:

the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings

Science

In a just released study, named Voluntary Enhancement of Neural Signatures of Affiliative Emotion Using fMRI Neurofeedback, scientists found that they could stimulate affiliative emotions of their subjects. The bottom line of this research is that, quite possibly, empathy can be trained.

Now, I’m not a scientist, and the “training” is not really applicable in a normal office environment, you would need a MRI and a laboratory. But, at the very least, this team proved that it can be done. And, basically, they did this by encouraging positive emotions.

In the white paper the team has a reference to Blade Runner, that gives you an automatic +1 in my book. When it happens in a scientific context.., another +1. And, I find ‘empathy’ a crucial element in human relationships, at home or at work. So, that’s another +1, making an easy +3 for the team.

So, let me reference Blade Runner too, and talk about empathy for a bit more.

Being Empathic

In Blade Runner the replicants were tested on their affiliative emotions. A lack of empathy could give them away, causing them to be retired by Blade Runner’s, a nasty business. Being a human with very poor empathic skills could land you in some deep water.

Moving to another Universe, in Star Trek: TNG, Counselor Troi, half Betazoid possesses the psionic ability to sense emotions. Making her an extremely empathic person (as well as impathic). This gives her the ability to ‘sense’ what the other person is feeling, with regular ‘patients’ this helps her to break down barriers quicker, and help them better.

In the case of enemies, knowing whether they are sincere or lying can provide a huge tactical advantage.

The point here being that empathy is a fundamentally important part of inter-human relations, and being aware of this is a step in the right direction.

In A Modern World

Of course, empathy has always been an important addition to your toolbox. A total lack of empathy, or affiliative emotions, kinda turns you into a psychopath, well, partly anyway.

Lack of empathy simply inhibits you to connect with the person opposite of you. At least on an emotional level. Luckily there is still non-verbal communication, and this still has a strong effect on the way we perceive the person across from us, and the meaning of their words.

Registering emotions help of course, but in a person-to-person situation there are other signals.

Not so online.

Chat

Now we use emoticons, or other shorthand to convey emotion. But, a :) is still just a :) . There’s no difference between :) and :) . Maybe you could do a :D , or even a :P , but anything beyond that gets complicated. And it requires you to remember all the emoticons applicable for a certain emotion, or take the time to look them up every time you need one.

And even if you do nail it to your satisfaction.., it still leaves room for interpretation.

Because you don’t actually see the person you’re talking to, often not even in real-time, it can be difficult to read between the lines. Even on a video-call it can be tricky, although less so.

When you translate this to the office and to the modern communication devices (i.e. e-mail) it can even become somewhat dangerous, or at least damaging. Whole departments can get at each others throats because of a wrongfully interpreted message.

Escalation is never far away.

Digital Village

In a modern, 21ste century company, (some) people try and replace e-mail. We, in The Business, look at it as an old, limiting and bloated communication tool. The biggest problem with e-mail is its capacity to black hole knowledge. Sharing and storing information in your e-mail client is a sure way of making sure nobody will ever find it.

So, we introduce an open online collaboration tool where everything gets tagged, shared, commented on, liked, and… stored. This makes information highly findable for anybody who needs it. Given everything is tagged correctly of course.

Also, we aim to make the Digital Village a platform where all employees can feel at home, comfortable to pitch ideas, and ask “stupid” questions. Nobody gets burned simply by sticking their head above the fence.

At least, that’s what we aim for.

Here, I believe, empathy is at its most important. Here the difference between making somebody feel at ease and making them feel ashamed is a tremendously thin line. And without proper “feels”, even the best of intentions can have a negative effect.

Big Hurdles

For some, picking up the phone, or sending that e-mail, or walking into the managers office are sheer feats of courage. Others don’t bat an eye.

Exposing one’s self on an open platform where even the CEO can see what you’re doing can be so daunting that many people simply won’t even try. Making them feel welcome and at ease takes some doing from the community, the community manager, and management, as well as some colleagues.

Being sensitive enough to be able to emotionally connect with these people is a crucial skill indeed. With the right support and understanding (i.e. empathy) many of these employees have an opportunity to flourish on the internal network(s). If they get burned badly by trolls, or insensitivity, they might never try again.

Wouldn’t it be great to send some colleagues on a training where they can learn empathy?

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