Provision #531: The Empathy Factor

Laser Provision

Last week, with the help of poetry, I encouraged you to let your love shine. This week I show you how. The secret is the empathy factor. Human beings have become what we are today not because we are the toughest but because we are the smartest of all animals. Those smarts go far beyond technology to include empathy and other forms of intelligence. Without empathy we would not have survived in the past and we will not survive in the future. If you want success in life and work, then the empathy factor holds the key.

LifeTrek Provision

Let’s be clear about the growing consensus among evolutionary biologists as to how our species, and most species, have gotten to where we are today. Between the two forces most often associated with passing along genes from one generation to the next, domination and empathy, the empathy factor has the upper hand.

That may come as a surprise to those who think of evolution in terms of survival of the strongest. Isn’t it the ability to dominate that leads to the ability to procreate? That’s what many people think, if they think about it at all, since in many societies the alpha male gets the most females. But there are more important factors to successful procreation than the frequency of copulation. There’s also the ability to raise those offspring to maturity, and that takes a social network that depends as much upon cooperation, empathy, and mutual aid as it does upon competition, hierarchy, and self-assertion.

When it comes to evolution, benevolence wins out over malevolence more often than one might imagine. That’s the conclusion of increasing numbers of research studies. It’s as though science and spirituality are converging. Empathy, scientists are discovering, is not just good for the soul; it’s good for the body and mind as well.

Last week I was in Orlando, Florida to attend the 3rd International Appreciative Inquiry Conference. It happens every three years, and this time there was a dramatic increase in the number of keynotes and breakout sessions coming from positive psychologists. Marty Seligman and Barbara Fredrickson were both in attendance, documenting through numerous studies why “it’s good to feel good.” The event was as uplifting as it was instructive. Empathy, as part and parcel of inquiry, was making itself known as a force to be reckoned with.

That’s because empathy, to quote Carl Rogers, “feels damn good.” To know that another person understands your experience is the first step to opening up and moving forward. There’s no way to get too much of that, at least not if we understand empathy properly. Perhaps a few distinctions are in order:

  • Pity is not empathy. Pity is feeling sorry for someone, and we can definitely have too much of that (aka a “pity party”).
  • Sympathy is not empathy. Sympathy is identifying with someone, often because we have been there ourselves (or can imagine being there ourselves). This, too, can be overwhelming as the condition of one induces a parallel or reciprocal condition in another. Scientists call this “emotional contagion.”
  • Antipathy is obviously not empathy. Antipathy is feeling opposed to someone, often with a sense of repugnance or aversion.
  • So, too, with enmity. Enmity is separating from someone, often because we see them as an enemy (provoking deep-seated hatred and antagonism). When enmity carries the day, families feud and civilizations war in increasingly horrific spirals of violence.

Although pity, sympathy, antipathy, and enmity all have their place in human psychology and human history, with the latter two getting the most newspaper headlines, none of them have played such a powerful role in human evolution as empathy.

  • Empathy is understanding what someone needs to feel better and acting in such a way as to help them feel better. Such emotional engagement goes beyond “emotional contagion” to include reflection, imagination, communication, and action. We reflect on verbal and nonverbal cues to discern their meaning; we imagine what someone may be feeling and needing at any given point in time; we communicate our sense of things to connect appreciatively; and we act in such a way as to be helpful. Whenever we come from this benevolent framework, we participate in the evolutionary drift of creation.

Humans are not the only animals with the power to reflect on, imagine, communicate about, and respond to feelings and needs. Studies with other species of primates (including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and macaques) and mammals (such as dolphins and elephants) make it clear that they, too, pay attention to emotional cues and respond to signs of distress with compassion and to signs of joy with elation.

I was particularly touched by the following story of animal altruism. Researchers found that rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to themselves if doing so shocked a companion. One monkey stopped pulling for five days and another for twelve days after witnessing shock delivery to a companion. These monkeys, notes Frans de Wall, were “literally starving themselves to avoid inflicting pain upon another.”

Such stories abound among those animal species who, like humans, have the cognitive ability to appreciate another’s situation and to take their perspective. It’s not enough for someone’s pain or joy to trigger our own pain or joy (that’s sympathy); empathy requires the ability to adopt someone else’s viewpoint, to imagine what they may be feeling and needing, and to act accordingly. That’s the stuff that has enabled humans to rise to the top of the food chain and to have our way in the world. It’s not domination, but empathy, that has made our species so successful.

Unfortunately, the same cognitive ability that makes empathy possible also makes empathy optional. We can look at the suffering or joy of another and tell ourselves all manner of stories to keep empathy at bay. We can, for example, rationalize that they are faking, overdoing, or manipulating things. We can label them with enemy images in order to justify antipathy and enmity. We can compare our situation with their situation in order to discount their feelings and needs. We can deny responsibility or judge them to be unworthy and undeserving.

Such empathy neutralizers are not rare events. On the contrary, they are the norm. In situation after situation, our sophisticated brains manage to weasel their way out of empathy. Perhaps we see it as the easy way out. Or perhaps we think it’s more important to care for, defend, and protect ourselves than to care for, defend, and protect others. Or perhaps we’re just too overwhelmed by our own problems and pain. For one reason or another, we give the empathy factor short shrift in our everyday lives.

As self-protective as this may seem, it is actually counterproductive. Only by giving empathy will we receive empathy, and only empathy has the power to heal and to unlock all those “good to feel good” capacities and resources that I was hearing about in Orlando. The more we circumscribe empathy in life and work, the worse things will be for one and all.

The antidote for antipathy and enmity is self-awareness. The more aware we become of our own feelings and needs, the more we can distinguish them from the feelings and needs of others. In the heat of the moment, we lose track of this distinction and, therefore, act from confusion. What are we reacting to? What’s mine and what’s not mine? What am I feeling and what are they feeling? What do I need and what do they need? It’s impossible to answer these questions without self-awareness.

And it’s impossible to have self-awareness without taking the time to become self-aware. If all we do is act and react our way through life and work, we are not coming from a position of self-awareness and we will not experience the benefits of empathy. Empathy requires us to step back and to take stock of the situations in which we find ourselves.

Paying attention to feelings and needs takes time. I find it helps to take a deep breath and to ask myself the four questions recommended by Marshall Rosenberg in his book, Nonviolent Communication:

  1. What can I see and hear that is happening right now? (This question gets me to interact with others and the space in which I find myself. Otherwise, I may jump to conclusions based upon my own interpretations, evaluations, judgments, opinions, and motivations.)
  2. What am I feeling and what do I guess the others are feeling? (This question gets me to interact with emotional information that I might otherwise overlook. It draws upon my emotional intelligence, which • like every intelligence • gets stronger the more it is used.)
  3. What do I need and what do I guess the others need? (This question gets me to look beyond the triggers to the root causes of all that emotional information. Triggers are the strategies • “I want you to stop talking” • while root causes are the needs • “I need peace and quiet.”)
  4. What action do I want to take? (This question gets me to use my cognitive abilities in relationship to that emotional information. Do I want to take more time to be alone with my thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires? Do I want to receive or give empathy? Do I want to make a connection or reach an agreement?)

I plan to write an entire series of Provisions on the Nonviolent Communication process. For now, however, I would refer you to their website,, and I would simply make the connection between empathy and benevolence. Without empathy there is no benevolence, and without benevolence there is no wellness.

Those who would reduce wellness to little more than nutrition and fitness take a limited view that may do more harm than good. Without the engagement and meaning that come from benevolence, even the best nutrition and fitness in the world are for naught. Without purpose and direction, they have no trajectory other than pleasure and that cannot be sustained.

Empathy is a way out from this conundrum. It puts us back on the path that got us to where we are today. The success of Homo sapiens is due in part to the fact that we have more capacity for empathy than any other animal. That capacity is true for each of us and all of us yet today. The only question, then, is will we exercise that capacity for good?

Coaching Inquiries: How would you rate your emotional intelligence? Do you connect honestly and reliably with the feelings and needs of both yourself and others? How could you make greater use of your capacity for empathy? Who could you practice with at home and/or at work in the next week? What excites about the prospect of making it so?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..

I am not only filled by your Provisions, I am over-flowing. Your last Provision, Let Your Love Shine, was an inspiration. I try to let my love fall upon all I come in contact with! Someday we will meet in person and get to know each other better, but for now, just thanks for all you do Bob…you’re a great man!

I loved your last Provision, Let Your Love Shine. Thanks!

In keeping with the subject of letting your light shine thru I have often used the “light in the tunnel” phrase as a motivational tool for those who are attempting to achieve a goal that they want to achieve. I see the light they are attempting to grasp as their love of the goal because as the light fades so does the love for the goal and vice versa. I also know that there was a religious movement during the time of Jesus called the followers of the light.

Thanks for your continued work on evolutionary wisdom. I like your thoughts about choices that exist today, and the real concerns about sustainability. Biologically, our species will adapt to what nature and technology give us.

Not to drop another puck on the ice, but I am quite baffled by those people who oppose GMO animal and vegetable food products. GMO is only a technical extension of the pioneering animal husbandry work done on English sheep in the 1830s (vociferously opposed by the Church, by the way). This genetic modification has continued until today we have the Angus steer, beefsteak tomatoes, and Norman Borlaug’s wheat. For 200 years, technology has kept us from the Malthusian dilemma: we need to foster, not atavistically oppose, these newer techniques for improving our food supply. We will need these innovations to sustain humanity, whether we eat like cavemen or metrosexuals.

That is, I cannot quite get the consistency of advocating a Paleolithic diet and the local-tarian movement, while opposing the technologies that would make these widely available and economically viable for the mass of humanity. Failing GMO and other advanced food technologies, will economics then enhance the current trend toward elite diets for the well-informed and well-heeled, and a high-fat, high-carbohydrate diet for everyone else?

(Ed. Note: Although I agree that “advanced food technologies” are needed to support the burgeoning human population, the jury is still out as to the side-effects of those technologies. As we have seen, agriculture does not come without risks and costs. Only time, much time, will tell when it comes to GMO.)

It has been a great ride working with your organization in our school system. Please know that things are better here as we rebuild and reach for excellence for our students. LifeTrek Coaching has touched and changed the lives of so many people. Our children will be better off due to the time we have laughed together, learned together, and often cried together! Many thanks. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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