Not just logic, but also EMPATHY. “What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others. Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind
I'm not quite sure why I did it, but I volunteered to speak about empathy at the Global Education Conference coming up in a couple weeks. So I spent some time this weekend trying to learn a little more about the topic. I've been interested in empathy as a possibly teachable/developable skill since reading Pink's A Whole New Mind book some years ago and thinking about how reading builds empathetic understandings.
What surprised me in my research, however, was not learning what empathy is - but what it is not. In trying to synthesize some things, here are a few "myths of empathy":
- Empathy is a value. Jonathan Aberman states that is a tool, like reading, writing or computer literacy, not a value. Sounds harsh, but empathy is not always used in positive ways. One can use empathy to manipulate!
- Empathy is a weakness - it's is the same as being a pushover. Far from it. Those who have learned to understand the feelings, motivations and others actually have a tremendous advantage in any relationship. (Think about how knowing what buttons to push could make your brother or sister really angry!)
- Empathy comes in only one flavor. Yes there is the emotional, touchy-feely side of empathy, but there is also cognitive empathy. (Some would add compassionate empathy as well.)
- Empathy means sharing others values - not disagreeing with them. Not at all. One can understand another's values, point-of view, and respect their conclusions, but not agree with them. You can be empathetic and try to persuade others to change their minds.
- Empathy is a natural attribute - you have it or you don't. Many writers, including Art Costa in his Habits of Mind, combine empathy and listening as interdependent skills. If we can help people become better listeners, it follows that we can help people be more empathetic. There are many activities (another area I am still reseaching) designed to build empathic skills.
- Empathy should be an attribute of followers, rather than leaders. In "Habit 5 - Seek first to understand"- of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Highly effective people, especially leaders, actually listen - in order to lead more effectively.
- Empathy is only necessary when trying to understand what others are saying. If one wants to "sell" others on an idea, a project, or a value, one must understand that the WIIFM (What's In It For Me) criteria that has to be met to make the sale. And one has to understand other's needs in order to offer a meaningful WIIFM argument. Pink in his book To Sell Is Human, calls this "perspective-taking" and is "an essential quality in moving others today."
Like many of you I'm sure, I believe empathy has intrinsic value. It makes us better human beings, adds richness to our lives, and simply makes the world a better place in which to live. But education has become wholly oriented toward vocational/academic training. So real educators must again revert to subversiveness, assuring parents and politicials that empathy is a "business skill" - a "21st century skill - a "leadership" skill.
If that's what it takes, so be it.
So what myths have you discovered about empathy?