Are you brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities?
We’ve all heard how we need to be more empathetic with others, to truly understand what it is like to walk a mile in their shoes. But what is it and is it actually any use?
“the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Dictionary.com
So what is empathy really and how is it different from sympathy?
Empathy means that we need to become vulnerable, which is probably why so few leaders dare exercise it… even at home. Rather than describe empathy versus sympathy, watch this excellent RSA short from a talk given by Dr Irene Browne:
Is empathy any use?
In an experiment discussed in Beckes et al., 2013., participants were put in an fMRI machine and shown a series of ‘X’s and ‘O’s on a screen. An ‘X’ offered a 17% chance that they would receive a mild electric shock in their ankle; an ‘O’ indicated that they were safe… for now.
When there was a chance that they would receive a shock, the brain scans showed the parts of the brain involved in threat response became more active… as would be expected. The fascinating part was that sometimes, when the participant held hands with a close friend, the friend received the shock rather than themselves.You might expect that if ‘your shock’ was going to your friend instead of you, there’d be some relief in the brain. But not so. The activity in the participants’ brains was almost identical when their friend was about to receive the shock as when they themselves were about to receive it. But if they held a strangers hand instead, and the stranger was to receive the shock… there was little activity.
It seems that the brain scans ‘see’ someone empathising with a friend.
But can it ‘see’ if empathy does any good?
This was examined in a 2006 study in Coan et al. with a similar procedure between husbands and wives rather than friends. The question in this study was to establish if holding their spouse’s hand made a difference in their brains of the partner who was about to receive an electric shock?
And it did make a difference. When a participant held their spouse’s hand, the threat response was significantly less active. And the stronger the marital relationship, the more pronounced the difference.
When you see someone you love suffering, you know how gut-wrenching it feels – that’s your threat response being activated together with the frustration of being unable to stop it for them. And if you have ever suffered, you know how comforting it is to have someone who cares about you with you.
So, yes. Empathy does good.