Research Paper By Daniel Chng
(Business Coach, UNITED STATES)
Empathy, a frequently used word, especially in the business world. It has been said so often that most of us hear it and say it’s such a motherhood statement. So what is Empathy? Well according to The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, the term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. (1) The definition of empathy is often understood by many of us, [but in my belief, not practiced often]. I believe that empathy is something we understand but do not practice often.
Empathy – a trait or a skill?
Based on a study published in the journal Brain and Behaviour, around 20 percent of the population is genetically predisposed to empathy. (2). If only 20 percent of us are ‘hardwired’ for empathy, then what about the rest of us? Are we destined to lead a life void of the ability to empathize? If we equate a person with high Emotional Intelligence (EQ) having a higher chance for success, does that mean the rest are doomed for failure? On the contrary. It might come across that empathy may be easier for some people but I also believe that it is a skill that can be learned or enhanced and not just a trait. If we were to see empathy as a skill, then how do we recognize it? How can we develop a curriculum, a program that will help us navigate through this journey of discovering empathy for ourselves?
For us to have a better understanding of whether it’s a skill or trait, or both, let’s dig a little deeper into the workings of how human beings empathize.
Empathy is not a singular skill or character trait, but a package of skills that pulls from multiple parts of the brain. Humans have the capacity for three kinds of empathy: (3)
- Reflexive empathy – Every human is born with the ability to respond to the pain of others. When shown images of others in pain, we will have a neurological response in the area of the brain that controls pain. The phenomenon of reflexive empathy is thought to be caused by “These nerve cells fire whether you are experiencing something or just witnessing someone else experienced it.
- Emotional empathy – This is the vicarious experiencing of another’s emotional pain. Closely related to reflexive empathy, emotional empathy does not require images of pain or sounds of distress to elicit a response. Just knowing what another is going through, is enough to create that second-hand pain response, as it occurs in reflexive empathy.
- Cognitive empathy – The ability to take the perspective of another and accurately imagine that person’s experience. This is the most sophisticated form of empathy and the only one that is definitely linked with helpfulness, kindness, and other pro-social behaviors. It’s the type of empathy that translates second-hand suffering into feelings of understanding and caring.
If we examine these three types of empathy, reflexive can be associated more closely as a trait. Some people are born with a high sensitivity to it. It’s in their nature. While cognitive empathy in my point of view is a skill. Something which we can learn, practice, and get better at it. It’s more nurture. Emotional empathy starts to straddle both nature and nurture. It requires the need for us to access both nature and nurture aspects of what makes us who we are.
So we can conclude from this observation that human beings may have these three types of empathy to a varying degree. The argument of nature vs nurture has been ongoing for almost a century in the academic and scientific world. Today, I believe most scientists would agree that it’s a combination of both nature and nurture that influences us as human beings. The other aspect to consider is the individual’s ‘motivation’ to empathize. Having these skills/traits does not automatically make someone empathetic. For the practical purpose of this research paper, I would like to focus on a skill that we can learn and enhance. Therefore I will be focusing on cognitive and emotional empathy.
Practical application – Leadership
According to Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, empathy isn’t a fixed trait but something we can build by putting ourselves in situations where we hear others’ thoughts and feelings, and then paying close attention. (4) If we can put ourselves into situations that we can observe and learn from, thus there are aspects to empathy which we can learn and enhance. What are these aspects? Let’s investigate. To apply empathy, I would like to use leadership as an example. This is especially more important in 2020. At the turn of a new decade, we have been thrown into a crisis that many of us have not seen or experienced before. A crisis that is impacting all of us at a global level and it does not discriminate. The COVID-19 pandemic.
The United Nation’s Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to the COVID 19 Crisis warns that “The COVID-19 pandemic is far more than a health crisis – it is affecting societies and economies at their core. While the impact of the pandemic will vary from country to country, it will most likely increase poverty and inequalities on a global scale. (5)
Without urgent socio-economic responses, global suffering will escalate, jeopardizing lives, and livelihoods for years to come. Immediate development responses in this crisis must be undertaken with an eye to the future. Development trajectories in the long-term will be affected by the choices countries make now and the support they receive. (6)
This is for our future and there is a sense of urgency targeted at the development of mankind. In response to this, we need leaders who understand this situation, the difficulties that we are all going through. We need leaders to lead us not just with great vision but with even greater empathy. We need to be ready and prepared for what the ‘new normal’, post-COVID-19 would look like. The new normal would require us to adapt to changes demanded by society and the environment. We will need people who will help recover from the pandemic-imposed challenges. We need leaders who can connect with us at all levels – body, mind, and soul. Therefore I would argue that we need leaders who understand empathy and know how to use empathy to lead with sincerity. To help us rebuild a new economy and society that will be more resilient and agile.
Before the COVID-19, the World Economic Forum surveyed how to address the needs of the Fourth Industrial revolution. They compared the top ten skills required for 2020 versus 2015. Emotional Intelligence was ranked number 6 in 2020, which was not ranked in the top ten for 2015. (7) If this an important skill then we need to develop and apply it.
So here is why empathetic leaders are important and how it will help with our new normal.
- Lead with understanding. The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty with our health, job security, career, relationship, economy, etc. We need leaders who will lead with insights into these uncertainties. Empathy here will help the leaders get deeper insights into how the people around them are feeling about their uncertainties and what they need to help overcome them. When you start with understanding, your team will want to open up more to you, because you care enough to listen. A mark of a good leader is when you listen, with the intent to understand. Do that and you will have people following you to the ends of the earth!
- Lead with soft-power. In this new normal and with the increase of virtual teams and the gig economy, the hierarchical organization will slowly fade away. The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded the reinvention of the organization for speed. Here is an excerpt from McKinsey - “As companies adopt new ways of working at speed, executives are also interested in moving to flatter, non-hierarchical structures, taking more radical approaches to decision making and ways of working. Gone are the days of waiting around for best practices to emerge. CEOs recognize the need to shift from adrenaline-based speed during COVID-19 to speed by design for the long run.”(8) With the removal of silos and hierarchies, leaders need to understand and learn how to adopt ‘soft-power’ in their day-to-day management of people. Empathy is the core ingredient for learning and having soft-power. To quote Simon Sinek,
Leadership is not a rank, it is a responsibility. Leadership is not about being in charge, it is about taking care of those in your charge. And when we take care of our people, our people will take care of us”
- Lead with a coaching mindset. Organizations today need to stay fluid and nimble. So leaders need to adopt a similar mindset. How can we get the best out of our people in this new normal? How can leaders identify the strengths and the weakness of their teams and manage it accordingly? That is why empathetic leaders need to adopt a coaching mindset. Leaders need to be constantly asking the right powerful questions. To actively listen to their people. In a Harvard Business Review article -
Rapid, constant, and disruptive change is now the norm, and what succeeded in the past is no longer a guide to what will succeed in the future. Twenty-first-century managers simply don’t (and can’t!) have all the right answers. To cope with this new reality, companies are moving away from traditional command-and-control practices and toward something very different: a model in which managers give support and guidance rather than instructions, and employees learn how to adapt to constantly changing environments in ways that unleash fresh energy, innovation, and commitment. The role of the manager, in short, is becoming that of a coach.”(9)
So in summary, to be an empathetic leader, here are my four steps to be empathetic. To empathize, we need to C.A.R.E. –
- Collaborative spirit/intentions
- Attend to someone wholeheartedly
- Relate to them in a holistic way
- Establish an emotional connection with others.
Tools – Empathy Mapping
The Empathy Mapping tool can be used to help us get a deeper insight into how the client is feeling about the goal/task that they want to achieve. We will need to explain and share this tool with our client. Then jointly explore each section to help them learn more about themselves.
The origins and what is an Empathy Map:
The empathy map was first designed as a collaborative tool team can use to gain a deeper insight into their customers. Much like a user persona, Empathy mapping is an efficient tool used by designers to not only understand user behavior but also visually communicate those findings to colleagues, uniting the team under one shared understanding of the user. Originally invented by Dave Gray at Xplane, the empathy map was made in an attempt to limit miscommunication and misunderstanding about target audiences, including customers and users. (10) The original purpose was for designers to have a deeper understanding of their target user’s experience (UX). Today, the empathy map’s usage has expanded. It can be used when you are trying to understand/empathize with a single individual or a group. I see this as a practical tool in coaching our clients to understand themselves better as well as others.
Below is an example of an empathy map template:
Here are the recommended steps to complete the empathy map:(11)
Step 1: Establish Focus and Goals
Who are we empathizing with?
This is the person/client who you want to understand and to help them discover themselves. This tool summarises his or her situation. Work with your client in completing this tool.
What do they need to do?
This is what you hope the client will do. What does success look like? For example, what does he or she need to do differently or decide? While the exercise is about building empathy and helping your clients explore their own feelings and thoughts, answering these questions helps focus the client and give context for their actions.
Step 2: Capture the Outside World
There’s no set order for completing each section, but I have found it more productive to start with the observable activities in the client’s world. Start by examining the client’s experience and ask them to fill it in by themselves. Complete the sections of the map to capture what the client sees, says, does, and hears.
What does the client SEE?
What is the client encountering in their daily experiences? These could be people, their activities, or things. What are the people around them doing? What is the client watching, reading, and exposed to in their environment or the marketplace that could influence them? Remember this is their world, not yours.
What does the client DO and SAY?
What are their behaviors and how do they conduct themselves? What is their attitude and what are they saying? This may change depending on where they are, who they are with, or is nearby.
What does the client HEAR?
What is the client hearing and how is it influencing them? Consider personal connections with family, friends, and coworkers.
Step 3: Explore Inside the Mind
After completing the outside elements, the focus moves inside the mind to explore the thoughts and feelings that are internal to the client and not observable. These might be acknowledged or captured during sessions.
What does the client THINK and FEEL?
Here we are focusing on what and how is the client thinking and feeling about their goals? Consider the positive and negative sides of thoughts. What makes them feel good or bad? How does the client feel? Frightened? Excited? Anxious?
Next, explore the specifics of the client’s needs and insights. What does success look like? Capture frustrations and challenges, the obstacles that stand in their way. What goals and dreams does the client have? Insights give us an understanding of what the client aspires to achieve.
Step 4: Summarise and Share
When all the sections are complete, take a moment to reflect. Have the client share their thoughts on the experience. Ask how it changed their perspectives or if it produced new insights. Explore key learnings/take-aways. Capture conclusions and ideas the map generated. This is a living document. Review and update as needed and print it out for your client’s reference.
Atypical clients (managers/leaders of an organization) in today’s world are all dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and they need to be prepared for the new normal. Having gone through this crisis has made them reflect upon themselves and how best they should and can move forward and adapt.
They are looking for insights into themselves, searching for answers and directions in their professional and personal life, and taking stock of their current situation. To be better equipped to deal with this, an important question for them is – How can I be more resilient and agile? Introduce and explain how the empathy map could help them through this process and ask if the client would like to use it.
Client X, a female aged 48 is working for a large Multi-National Cooperation. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, X’s company has been going through some challenging times, due to the economic lockdown of several countries where they have businesses in. This has forced the company to cut costs aggressively and has led to freezes in new projects, new hires, and some restructuring of each business unit. This has severely impacted the morale of their employees and X as a team leader is worried. Worried about the job security of her team as well as her own. She is also looking for ways to keep herself resilient and agile in these challenging times. She felt blocked and wanted someone to help her figure this out.
The client shared that she realized that she needed to adapt to this new normal but she needed a sounding board to work through her thought process. She felt, that she needed to find a better way to deal with herself and her team.
Her goal for the session was to find an organized and practical approach to adapt to this new normal. She wanted some actionable steps on how she could become more resilient and agile. How could she put all the emotions that she is experiencing and channel it in the ‘right’ direction? So when I asked her to elaborate on what she meant by in the right direction, she said – “How can I lead myself and my teammates? How can I show them that I understand what they are going through when I am not clear about my own emotions and direction?”
I then proceeded to explain to her the empathy mapping tool and how it could help her understand her goal to be more resilient and agile. These are the following action steps taken;
- I gave the client a blank empathy mapping template.
- I then invited her to explore and write down each segment starting with their goal.
- I followed up by asking her to reflect on each segment and consider how she felt in each segment. I then helped guide the client through this reflection by asking questions to help her move forward and gain greater awareness of herself. Questions varied per segment, and dependent on how the conversation ensued, but guideline questions included:
- What is holding you back?
- What feelings are coming up for you as we go through each segment?
- How can you act upon what has been discovered in each segment?
- What insights and key take-aways have you discovered?
After completing the empathy map, the client had a completed visual representation of how she is feeling towards her goal of being resilient and agile.
After having gone through this process, the client said she felt energized and had clarity about her desired goal. The client was able to identify two key insights that she wished to focus on in our future coaching sessions. She was feeling motivated to begin addressing her needs and a newfound realization of her own emotions.
Conclusion and learning
When helping leaders discover their own voice during challenging times i.e. COVID-19 pandemic, we need to adopt a more empathetic approach when coaching. A lot of people understand the definition of empathy but putting it into practice is another thing. So the first step is to understand a little deeper how to empathize and so I would like to take the C.A.R.E approach to empathize with my client. This is my guiding principle in coaching.
The next question that clients will be asking is, how can I make this tangible? How can I relate to this coaching session? How is this going the be practical for me and measurable? Here the empathy mapping tool helps address all these queries. When you use the tool, it’s important that you explained what this tool is. After that, you must allow the client to use the tool for how they see fit. It is a tool. How you use it and how it is adopted will make it successful and beneficial for the clients.
Finally, as a coach helping leaders, I see the importance of showing them empathy and hopefully, this will help them to be empathetic leaders their own way. Humanity needs us to C.A.R.E in this new decade and beyond.
(1) 2020, What is empathy? The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
(2)Bianca P. Acevedo et al. (2014), The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions. Brain and behavior Volume 4, issue 4.
(3) December 14, 2019, Empathy is essential: The “soft skill” that engages the whole brain by Nebraska Children and Families Foundation Blog.
(4)Zaki, J. (2014). Empathy: A motivated account. Psychologic-Al Bulletin, 140(6), 1608–1647.
(5) United Nations report (2020). a un framework for the immediate socio-economic response to covid-19, page 3.
(6) United Nations development program report (2020). Covid-19 socio-economic impact. paragraph 3.
(7) World Economic Forum (Jan 2016). The Future of Jobs – Global Challenge Insights Report.
(8)McKinsey& Company (26 June 2020). Ready, set go: Reinventing the organization for speed in the post-COVID-19 era.
(9) HerminiaIbarra and Anne Scoular Harvard Business Review (November-December issue 2019). The leader as a coach.
(10) Camren Browne. Careerfoundry Blog (July 26, 2019). What is an empathy map? A comprehensive guide for UX designers.
(11) Edited from – Jennifer L Brown. UX Booth Research Article. (June 27, 2018). Empathy Mapping: A guide to getting inside a user’s head.