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When Empathy moves us to Action-By Daniel Goleman

Daniel Gole­man requires no intro­duc­tion. Per­son­ally, of all his books I have read, the one I found most stim­u­lat­ing was Destruc­tive Emo­tions: A Sci­en­tific Dia­logue With the Dalai Lama, a superb overview of what emo­tions are and how we can put them to good use. He is now con­duct­ing a great series of audio inter­views includ­ing one with George Lucas on Edu­cat­ing Hearts and Minds: Rethink­ing Education.

We are hon­ored to bring you a guest post by Daniel Gole­man, thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine, a UC-Berkeley-based quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Enjoy!

- Alvaro

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Hot To Help: When can empa­thy move us to action?

By Daniel Goleman

We often empha­size the impor­tance of keep­ing cool in a cri­sis. But some­times cool­ness can give way to detach­ment and apathy.

We saw a per­fect exam­ple of this in the response to Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina, whose dev­as­ta­tion was ampli­fied enor­mously by the lack­adaisi­cal response from the agen­cies charged with man­ag­ing the emer­gency. As we all wit­nessed, lead­ers at the high­est lev­els were weirdly detached, despite the abun­dant evi­dence on our TV screens that they needed to snap to action. The vic­tims’ pain was exac­er­bated by such indif­fer­ence to their suf­fer­ing. So as we pre­pare for the next Katrina-like dis­as­ter, what can the sci­ence of social intel­li­gence espe­cially research into empa­thy teach pol­icy mak­ers and first respon­ders about the best way to han­dle them­selves dur­ing such a crisis?

This brings me to psy­chol­o­gist Paul Ekman, an expert on our abil­ity to read and respond to oth­ers’ emo­tions. When I recently spoke with Ekman, he dis­cussed three main ways we can empathize with oth­ers, under­stand­ing their emo­tions as our own. The dif­fer­ences between these forms of empa­thy high­light the chal­lenges we face in respond­ing to other people’s pain. But they also make clear how the right approach can move us to com­pas­sion­ate action.

The first form is “cog­ni­tive empa­thy,” sim­ply know­ing how the other per­son feels and what they might be think­ing. Some­times called perspective-taking, this kind of empa­thy can help in, say, a nego­ti­a­tion or in moti­vat­ing peo­ple. A study at the Uni­ver­sity of Birm­ing­ham found, for exam­ple, that man­agers who are good at perspective-taking were able to move work­ers to give their best efforts.

But cog­ni­tive empa­thy can illus­trate the “too cold to care” phe­nom­e­non: When peo­ple try to under­stand another person’s point of view with­out inter­nal­iz­ing his or her emo­tions, they can be so detached that they’re not moti­vated to do any­thing to actu­ally help that person.

In fact, those who fall within psychology’s “Dark Triad” nar­cis­sists, Machi­avel­lians, and sociopaths can actu­ally put cog­ni­tive empa­thy to use in hurt­ing peo­ple. As Ekman told me, a tor­turer needs this abil­ity, if only to bet­ter cal­i­brate his cru­elty. Tal­ented polit­i­cal oper­a­tives can read people’s emo­tions to their own advan­tage, with­out nec­es­sar­ily car­ing about those peo­ple very much.

And so cog­ni­tive empa­thy alone is not enough. We also need what Ekman calls “emo­tional empa­thy” when you phys­i­cally feel what other peo­ple feel, as though their emo­tions were con­ta­gious. This emo­tional con­ta­gion depends in large part on cells in the brain called mir­ror neu­rons, which fire when we sense another’s emo­tional state, cre­at­ing an echo of that state inside our own minds. Emo­tional empa­thy attunes us to another person’s inner emo­tional world, a plus for a wide range of pro­fes­sions, from sales to nurs­ing not to men­tion for any par­ent or lover.

But wait: Emo­tional empa­thy has a down­side, too, espe­cially for first respon­ders. In a state of emo­tional empa­thy, peo­ple some­times lack the abil­ity to man­age their own dis­tress­ing emo­tions, which can lead to paral­y­sis and psy­cho­log­i­cal exhaus­tion. Med­ical pro­fes­sion­als often inoc­u­late them­selves against this kind of burnout by devel­op­ing a sense of detach­ment from their patients.

Cul­ti­vated detach­ment in res­cue, med­ical, and social work­ers can actu­ally help the vic­tims of dis­as­ter. Ekman told me about his daugh­ter, a social worker at a large city hos­pi­tal. In her sit­u­a­tion, he said, she can’t afford to let emo­tional empa­thy over­whelm her. “My daughter’s clients don’t want her to cry when they’re cry­ing,” he says.

The dan­ger arises when detach­ment leads to indif­fer­ence, rather than to well-calibrated car­ing. Today, we face this prob­lem on a global level. “One of the prob­lems of liv­ing in a tele­vi­sion soci­ety is that every bit of suf­fer­ing and mis­ery that occurs any­where in the world is shown to us,” says Ekman and gen­er­ally, we can’t do any­thing about it, at least not directly.

This can make emo­tional empa­thy seem futile and hin­der the growth of the third kind of empa­thy, which Ekman calls “com­pas­sion­ate empa­thy.” With this kind of empa­thy we not only under­stand a person’s predica­ment and feel with them, but are spon­ta­neously moved to help, if needed.

Com­pas­sion­ate empa­thy was the vital ingre­di­ent miss­ing from the top-level response to Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina and in responses to many other dis­as­ters around the world, includ­ing the slow-burning dis­as­ter of global warm­ing. Ekman calls com­pas­sion­ate empa­thy a skill, the acquired knowl­edge “that we’re all connected.”

This can lead to out­bursts of what he calls “con­struc­tive anger.” In other words, react­ing neg­a­tively to injus­tice or suf­fer­ing can moti­vate us to work with oth­ers to make the world a bet­ter place. Just as empa­thy has its down­sides, neg­a­tive emo­tions like anger can have upsides. Stay­ing cool in a cri­sis might bring some ben­e­fits. But some­times we must let our­selves get hot in order to help.

– Daniel Gole­man, Ph.D., is the author of the best­sellers Emo­tional Intel­li­gence and Social Intel­li­gence. His web­site is www.danielgoleman.info. Goleman’s full con­ver­sa­tion with Daniel Siegel can be heard as part of the audio series Wired to Con­nect: Dia­logues on Social Intel­li­gence, avail­able through More than Sound Pro­duc­tions.

We bring you this post thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine, a UC-Berkeley-based quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

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