The incredible connecting power of empathy

Newsletter 8

Evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal have shown that we are social animals which, from the earliest times, have gathered in groups, depending on each other for food, shelter and survival. Empathy plays a vital role because a lack of empathy makes cruelty and oppression possible, and the connections can’t exist without it.

Companies run by people who seem to care more about profits than people are becoming less and less valued. The truth is that if a company’s employees feel that the people who own and run it care about them and their well-being, they are happy and engaged and consequently work harder to make the company successful and profitable.

We understand empathy as the ability to know how others feel and things from their perspective, and It plays a crucial role in human connections. But it would help to acknowledge that feeling before connecting with how another person feels.

American social psychologist C. Daniel Batson has been researching empathy for decades and states that the term can refer to eight different concepts: knowing another person’s thoughts and feelings; imagining another person’s thoughts and feelings; adopting another person’s position; feeling what another person does; imagining how one would feel or think in another person’s place; feeling anguish for another person’s suffering; feeling for another person’s suffering; projecting oneself into another person’s situation.

To understand better, I’ll summarise all the above in the three main types of empathy defined by current psychology:

Cognitive empathy 

It is related to the theory of mind, a psychological concept based on studying what other people think and understand. Cognitive empathy is about putting yourself in another person’s shoes and seeing their perspective.

Its benefits are that it helps in negotiations, motivates others, understands diverse points of view and is ideal for virtual meetings. Its drawbacks are that it can disconnect from or ignore deep emotions and does not put you in the other person’s shoes in a meaningful sense.

Emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy)

Emotional empathy is the first type of empathy you experience as a child, and It is known as «personal distress» or «emotional contagion«. It’s when you share another person’s feelings, as though their emotions were contagious, and it deals with feelings, physical sensations and mirror neurons in the brain.

Its benefits include helping close interpersonal relationships and careers such as coaching, marketing, management and human resources. Its drawbacks are that it can be overwhelming or inappropriate in certain circumstances.

Compassionate empathy (also known as empathy concern)

Finally, compassionate empathy is what we usually understand as kindness and refers to compassion, intellect, emotion or action. It balances cognitive and emotional hearts, allowing us to go beyond simply understanding the feelings of others to help to the best of our ability.

Its main benefit is the possibility of considering the whole person, and it has few dangers as it is the type of empathy we seek most.

Why should we care about empathic connections?

You might be wondering, why do we need empathy? Many critical factors explain the importance of being able to empathise both in your personal life, work life, and your community, but the more important is your happiness.

Research shows that empathic people are happier and are less aware of others’ negative emotions, which can enhance them to build trust essential in any connection, especially true for women. Studies also have suggested that women are generally more empathetic than men and significantly better at reading people’s emotions simply by looking into their eyes.

Therefore, in your next connection, strive to notice people’s cues that may indicate their feelings, which helps you be happier and achieve more trusting relationships.

Strategies for fostering empathic connections

Although empathy is developed from childhood, it is a skill that we can enhance throughout our lives and use as a radical force to generate connections that drive our professional and personal growth.

For this, we must cultivate the following strategies:

BE PRESENT

Presence requires intentionality because it is more than a physical act. Don’t look away, don’t look at your smartphone. Developing a good company will allow the person to feel seen, known, loved, valued, and felt.

USE YOUR IMAGINATION

Imagine how the world looks through other people’s eyes. Think about how other people’s hardships make them feel and how their experiences shape their perceptions.

OBSERVE NONVERBAL LANGUAGE CUES USED TO COMMUNICATE

«An estimated 60 to 65 % of interpersonal communication is conveyed via nonverbal behaviours.«

To develop an empathetic connection, you must observe nonverbal cues as a group rather than focusing on a single action. The things we don’t say can convey much information, from facial expressions to body movements.

There is a good book about this, written in Spanish by my friend Teresa Baró entitled «IMPARABLES».

CULTIVATE CURIOSITY ABOUT STRANGERS

Curiosity amplifies our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, which is why highly empathetic people are insatiably curious about strangers.

Generating a curious spirit requires more than a brief talk about the weather. Above all, understanding the world inside the other person’s head with questions allows us to put ourselves in their shoes and look for ways to be helpful.

TAKE ACTION

Although we tend to think that empathy occurs only at the individual level, it is indeed a mass phenomenon that generates fundamental social changes in our daily lives.

At the clubimpulso.net I lead, we base ourselves on this philosophy, recognising that everybody can generate small connections to make a difference in someone else’s life.

FOCUS ON SIMILARITIES

Empathy and similarity are directly related, as the feeling of compassion depends on the similarity between one’s feelings and those of others. Thus, similarity can tell to empathy on a variety of different levels, from a parallel of the situation (e.g., it is easier to empathise with someone about the death of one’s grandfather if one has just gone through the same experience) to a more abstract understanding that one has been in a similar emotional state as the target.

In short, we feel more empathy for others to the extent that we perceive them as us. To strengthen our connective heart, we must understand and feel the other individual’s perspective by looking for similarities. Start small and identify the connections that may exist. 

BUILD ALTRUISTIC CONNECTIONS

Caring about others and trying to do good is not just something we choose to do. New research shows that our brains may be wired to be generous, thanks to our ability to imagine ourselves in the place of others.

When we generate connections that genuinely seek to put others first, we empower that empathic feeling that helps us build a deeper network based on our personal experience. 

Make sure your life contains an element of service, where you put the needs of others before your own, for example, caring for the sick or elderly, doing charity or volunteer work. Altruism and service help us transcend separation and connect with others, creating a following of empathy.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

«You need to connect with someone within yourself that knows the feeling the other person is showing you.»- Brené Brown.

In our brains, the amygdala, somatosensory cortex, and anterior insula are associated with–among other things–pain, emotion, and also with emulating others. So we need to practice empathy connections often.

When you take an interest in what others think, feel and experience, you’ll develop a reputation for being caring, trustworthy and approachable – and be a great asset to your reputation and your organisation.

I hope this article has been helpful to you, and remember that the secret of a strong connection is not magic; it is empathy.

You now have the skills to strengthen your network. Have a nice day!

*** BEFORE YOU GO

Quote of the Week: «Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.»- Anonymous

Jose Raul Vaquero is President of the documentalistas.org Foundation and Founder of clubimpulso.net, which connects more than 100,000 professionals from 24 countries. For this work, he has been recognised by several governments and organisations.

Throughout the year, different editions of the CONNECTIONS mentoring program are launched. Please get in touch with Jose Raul Vaquero if you would like to register as a mentee!