What is Empathy?

Lots of Pocketbooks use the word ‘empathy’.  The problem is that scientists still find it hard to properly characterise.  New Scientist magazine ran a fascinating feature article on 13 March 2010 called ’Empathy Overkill’.  In this article they studied what we can learn when our empathy systems go into overdrive.  There are some people who suffer from forms of extreme empathy, such as:

    unconsciously echoing other people actions
    …..– even inappropriate ones

    feeling the physical sensations they
    …..observe in others

Mirror Neurons

MirrorNeuronsEmpathy appears to be due to some specialised brain cells called mirror neurons that are at the top of our brains.  They activate in the same way, whether we do something or we see someone else do it.  They let us ‘try out’ other people’s movements and gestures.

It seems that some people’s mirror neurons are not inhibited enough, causing them to literally live-out the actions or sensations they observe.

Empathy and Compassion

As well as the medical implications of extreme empathy, scientists are also looking at the link between empathic responses and compassion.  Evidence suggests that an inability physically identify with other people’s pain does correlate with high self-assessed levels of ‘cold-heartedness’.

So, it is your mirror neurons that let you know how other people are feeling.  When a colleague walks into work tomorrow, they will help you know whether that colleague is feeling good or bad.

Sustainable Competitive Advantage

John Mattock is passionate about the value of cross cultural empathy in business.  If you want to work with business people in another culture, being sensitive to their cultural norms and making the effort to understand them will bring you sustainable competitive advantage.  The Cross-Cultural Business Pocketbook is chock-full of great tips to build up your understanding and for how to communicate effectively across cultures.  A series of two-page mini guides to a handful of cultures on their own make this an insightful and valuable book.

CrossCulturalBusiness

So here’s the deal

If you want to read other people’s minds, let your mirror neurons tell you what’s going on.  What you choose to do with that information is up to you. If you work with people from other cultures, then your empathy skills may be stretched to their limits, but if you prime them well and are sympathetic to the emotions your mirror neurons detect, then you may just get better results for your efforts.

Other Management Pocketbooks you may enjoy

If you have come across from our sister site, the Teachers’ Pocketbooks Blog, or are interested in empathy in the classroom, you may like this short post.

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One thought on “What is Empathy?

  1. John Mattock

    Hi, nice to see my book here. The mirror neurons model is new to me…I’ll work with this idea over the next two weeks in South India.
    Note: successful empathy does not necessarily make you ‘soft’. Once you have identified how another person is feeling, you still have the choice of whether to agree/ help/ support…It is useful even when seeking your own advantage, because it gives you the power to predict the other’s likely actions and so…if you wish…to influence them. Without empathy, you are on the back foot – unable to anticipate, able only to react.
    JM

    Reply

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