Empathy & Perspective

August 18, 2010 — 13 Comments

One of the critical functions of empathy is the ability to understand foreign situations—the things outside your self. This paves the way for pragmatism. As opposed to most “strategy” which is idealism or retroactive wishful thinking.

-Yahoo doomed themselves when they became a media company. Ok, now what?
-The record industry responded poorly to technology, we get it, what now?
-I knew the war in Iraq was going to be a mistake! And…?

Much of the discussion of these types of problems is best categorized as flippant analysis. Simplified is another word. I tend to interpret it as condescending too. It all stems from an inability to understand and place yourself in a reality you may not approve of or even care about. That is, to empathize.

Yahoo is a 20 billion dollar company. What are they supposed to do? Quit? The people in the situation are real, they wake up everyday and show up at an office and are expected to do something. They have quarterly filings, signed contracts, relationships and expectations. What are they supposed to do? In our lives, we’re much more likely to find ourselves as one of these people—just trying to maintain in a situation whose constraints we had nothing to do with—not the rebel billionaire with a chance to make things over completely.

Edwin Hutchins found, in his book Cognition in the Wild, that however organizations ultimately come to be organized determines how they think and process collectively. The factors and the personalities that formed the organization, in other words, formed and are the terrain. They matter more than just about anything else.

Since Kuhn philosophers of science have wondered if it’s even possible for a generation educated in a new paradigm to understand the assumptions taken seriously in the paradigm that came before. In a way, this is exactly the kind of gap empathy is aimed to bridge. Can you (or are you willing to) temporarily internalize a perspective you know to be flawed in order to understand the reality of someone else? This is what Hutchins wanted us to see, that to grasp why an entity makes a decision has as much to do with the choice itself as the way the group is structured. We’re missing a large part of the equation if we pretend the only thing that matters is the merits of either side of the decision.

It appears that this was the case with Cicero. Although wonderfully articulate and astute, he constantly misread the political situation because he was clueless to what went on in other people’s heads. His calculatedness, his ideals, his vision, it was always turned upside by some action he had not anticipated—as though it was some shock that Caesar had become convinced that only bold action could save Rome or that Octavian would eventually tire of being a pawn.

Because it doesn’t really matter what you think. It matters how they thought. People often confuse concept empathy with the concept sympathy. As they relate to emotions, sympathy is to agree, to share and to approve of how someone else feels. Empathy is the art of acknowledging those feelings without having to take them on yourself. Maybe this occasionally means thinking “it’s just too complicated for me to reduce to a couple sentence summary” or “I can only imagine the headspace that guy must be in” and leave the pronouncements to the charlatans and fools.

Finally, empathy gives you the perspective to “start from where the world is, as it as” as you look to change it into what you want it to be.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

13 responses to Empathy & Perspective

  1. Another good post Ryan. Keep up the great work.

  2. As a psychology student I was taught that ’empathy’ was akin to mirroring the experiences of another. For example, when another person is experiencing grief, to empathize with them would be to experience that grief with them; to feel what they are feeling, hopefully helping them to feel less alone, and potentially allowing them to gain some perspective on what they are going through by seeing it in another.

    I read your post earlier this morning, and I’ve been trying to make sense of how my experience with “empathy” fits with yours, but I haven’t been able to, yet.

    They seem very similar to me, particularly when you describe finding empathy for another this way:

    Can you (or are you willing to) temporarily internalize a perspective you know to be flawed in order to understand the reality of someone else

    I would guess that from the perspective of a therapist, finding empathy would be finding a way to let go of the idea that I “know” their perspective to be flawed. Maybe the only real distinction between your empathy and the kind I was taught is the purpose behind finding it; in yours you intend to empathize in order to be more effective as an individual, in a therapeutic setting we empathize for the purpose of helping others face their difficult experiences.

    Thanks for the post, Ryan. As an aspiring therapist currently working in the business sector, this has been great food for thought.

    • Matt, you’re absolutely correct. Mirroring, especially in psychology, is an important part of empathy. For instance, this is how children learn to recognize their emotions. If they are upset or curious or happy, they see that acknowledged and reflected (mirrored) by an attentive parent and in turn are able to identify the emotion they just felt. Interestingly, the children of narcissist are deprived of this because their parents either cannot understand their child’s emotions or instead feel it themselves and undermine the child’s sense of self.

      That being said, there really is no distinction between what I was talking about and how the therapeutic process operates. They are the same. It’d be dangerous and inappropriate for a therapist to “feel the grief with their patient.” The role of the therapist is to help the patient understand their own emotions, not share the burden. In a way, this is a critical part of strategy as well – to understand the limitations and background of the involved actors but not become limited or tied down by them yourself. You acknowledge, but do not assume. Thus, the difference between sympathy and empathy.

      On a slightly related note: You might like the concept of “umwelt” which originated as biological term but has some applications to psychology.

      • Good reminder of the distinction, I totally agree that trying to actually feel grief yourself is not actually empathy, but is in fact irresponsible and inappropriate. Thanks for helping to clarify that, I haven’t really thought about that in a while.

        Slightly related note: Just reading some about umwelt now, and it seems like a useful way of synthesizing some of the different ways of understanding our relationship with self/world/other people. Appreciate the reference. Reminds me a lot of phenomenological philsophy – probably partly because it’s a German word. How does the concept of umwelt affect your understanding of empathy?

  3. Great point here Ryan. I never understood empathy until Freshmen year in College. I read this book called Emotional Intelligence, by Dan Goleman which changed the way I looked at human relationships. The reason many personal and relationships fail is because of lack of empathy. Many of us get into fights with spouses, friends, and co workers and yet we don’t take the time to study this issue.

    Hope your post makes people more aware of this subject so they can start studying it in depth if they need help in this area.

    Thanks for the post.

    Cheers,
    Nabil

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