When was the last time you cried at a movie? Or felt compassion when a co-worker told you his child was getting bullied at school, or that his father just passed away?
Does your heart go out to the neighbor’s three-legged dog when you see her hobble along the sidewalk during a walk?
Or to the people who lost their homes in the latest hurricane, wildfire, or flood?
The thing is, we all feel it. It’s part of the human experience.
In fact, even from an early age, we can relate to the struggles and challenges that others face. When we feel their pain, we can put ourselves in a position to do something about it, whether it’s to help out, create a solution, or even just offer support.
One of the things that really struck me when I was doing research for Mean People Suck was a video of a little girl crying. She was watching a scene from the Pixar movie, The Good Dinosaur. She clearly had an intense emotional experience!
In the Pixar scene, the dinosaur – a young, doe-eyed dino name Arlo – falls down. But, to make things more devastating, he finds himself alone, without his family. After struggling to get back on his feet, Arlo calls out for his mom. The silence the little dino gets in response is heartbreaking.
Two-year-old Jentree loses it at this point. In the video, her grandmother tried to comfort her by telling her that Arlo is okay. But, Jentree just curls her lip to try and stop herself from going into a full-blown sob and says, “He wants his mama.” You can tell from her voice she feels it – she has put herself in Arlo’s shoes. She imagines what he must be going through, feeling lost and alone and simply wanting the comfort of his mom.
That little girl, someone who probably just learned to talk over the past few months of her life, knows empathy well.
Because empathy isn’t something we have to learn in order to experience it. It’s a huge part of what being human means.
This made me wonder – how many of us have turned away from empathy, and so we’re no longer able to naturally relate to others. Why, as adults, are so many of us struggling with empathy? We’re approaching it as a skill to develop so we can be more successful, understand people, and improve our personal relationships – because we’ve lost it.
When does empathy get turned off anyway?
And what would happen – at work, at home, school, and in society in general – if we flicked the empathy switch back on?
- Empathy is part of the human experience, and for a good reason – it’s helped us to evolve.
- By practicing empathy, we can better understand others, including friends, co-workers, and customers.
- When you tap into empathy, what you do, create, and say has the power to inspire.
Empathy, Not Arrogance, Motivates Evolution
In my book, I talk about what I call the paradox of confidence, that somewhere along the way, we decided shrewd, confident, arrogant individuals make better leaders. So, society rewards this behavior, we strive for it, and the humble are shunned.
We think, if we want to succeed, we need to be hardened.
The problem with this belief is that empathy is actually what has helped us evolve. Empathy is the binding force of communities – it’s what motivates us to cooperate and work together for a greater end.
It’s also motivated us to take care of others, whether our own family, or others in our community. Societies that look after one another are more successful because each individual has a greater chance of survival.
In the modern context, a supportive society empowers each individual to offer their talents, skills, and time as a resource that can improve the whole.
Even from an evolutionary perspective, it was the apes who exhibited empathy who were more likely to survive. As a result, these traits have been passed down for hundreds of thousands of years, and have played a major role in humans moving beyond a hunter-gatherer model and developing advanced societies.
Seriously, just imagine a world where every human tried to dominate others all the time. Without empathy, let’s be honest, we’re screwed.
Developing Empathy Helps Us All Succeed
On the other hand, by focusing on the importance of empathy and consciously developing it as a skill and practicing it, you open up a world of potential.
- You can better understand the motivations of co-workers, managers, customers, and other stakeholders.
- When you are empathetic, you’re in a position to envision and develop effective solutions to problems – empathy drives innovation like nothing else.
- Empathy fosters better engagement and helps to build customer loyalty and trust.
- An empathetic workforce can work together – and with collaboration comes growth, better productivity, and a more positive work culture.
On a larger scale, empathy is what can bring organizations and groups of people together to tackle some of the world’s largest problems. And, we’ve got a handful of big ones to figure out in the 21st century.
I’ve no doubt, empathy is at the core of the solutions we need. As individuals who feel isolated. As businesses who are trying to engage their workers. And as societies who truly do, at root, want a better world for everyone.
By practicing empathy in our daily lives, we can bring it to the workplace, encourage it in our children so they never lose it, and inspire others to do the same.
Try it. At home. When you go out for dinner or for a movie. And, bring it to your work to make what you do more meaningful.
See the difference it makes in your world, from better-engaged employees and improved customer loyalty, to more caring, supportive interactions in your interpersonal relationships.
Be nice – and if you want to find out more about the power of empathy, read Mean People Suck.