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6 – Empathy

Lesson 6

So, empathy is all well and good, but that leads us again to the question, how do you do this? How do you train empathy? And once again, turns out, not that hard. So, the way to train empathy. There are two factors. There are two components. The first is seeing human similarity. Looking at a human being and seeing this person is just like me. That creates the condition for empathy.

There's a fascinating study that illustrates this. And this study came from Italy. And so, to tell you about the study, I need to tell you a little bit about the context. The context is this. So, if I put electrodes on your face, and let's say I introduced a very small current, there will be a certain level of currant that will allow you to feel the sensation on your face. And then I tone it down very slightly which means that you deliver enough currant that is just below a conscious sensory experience. Which means that you cannot perceive it. It's right at a threshold of your perception.

So, here's the interesting thing. You cannot experience it however, if at the same time that this currency introduced on your face, you see a video of your own face being touched. Then you can feel it because seeing a video of your face being touch somehow increases a sensitivity of sensing touch. So, that's interesting, but it gets more interesting.

So, the question is this. Instead of seeing your own face, what if you see somebody else's face being touched? Does it have the same effect? It turns out, yes.

If you see the face of somebody else being touched, it also lowers the threshold at which you can experience that sensation.

Now it gets really interesting. Now the question is this. If you see the face of somebody being touched, the face of somebody from your own race, your own skin color versus somebody else from another race, does it make a difference? It turns out it makes a difference. It turns out that according to the study, they had white guys and black guys looking at either faces of white guys or black guys being touched and if somebody from your own race, it affects your sensitivity more than from somebody else's race.

Now gets even more interesting. What if this is somebody from your own race however, it is somebody either from your own political party or from the other party. Would that make a difference? And it turns out it does make a difference. So, the mere perception of this guy shares my political beliefs, or this guy doesn't share my political beliefs. Just that mere perception affects your level of empathy at the neurological level, at the level of sensation, which is fascinating.

So, therefore, it suggests that if we create a habit of seeing people as just like me, that by itself will already increase empathy. So, that's number one. And the second one is very obvious. It's loving kindness. It is like, if you are kind to people, if you feel a kindness towards that other person, you feel more empathetic for that person. Very straightforward. 


So, the next question. How do you do that? How do you increase human similarity and empathy? And again, it turns out it's very simple. The way to do that is encapsulated by a quote which is retroactively very obvious at the same time it's one of those life changing insights and this is the quote; 

"Whatever one frequently thinks and ponders upon that will become the inclination of his mind."

In other words, what you think often, you become. This suggests the methodology in which we can trade compassion. It is to create mental habits. Specifically, the two mental habits. The first mental habit is the habit of human similarity, which is to look at any human being and your thought is, this person is just like me, human being just like me. And the second thing is loving kindness, which is again, a mental habit of looking at any human being and your thought is, I want this person to be happy, I want this person to be happy, I want this person to be happy.

Imagine having that mental habit. Imagine like going to any meeting room, looking at any human being and saying, I want all these people to be happy. Changes everything. It changes how you interact with them and it changes how they interact with you because your wish for them to be happy is reflected in your body language unconsciously. The way you approach, the way you thought, your facial expression, your posture, and then it's unconsciously picked up by the other person. And they are feeling is they like you and they don't really know why they like you and it's because you've been wishing them happiness. It's really as simple as that and extremely powerful.

So, how do you train that? There are informal ways and formal ways. The informal way is very simple. Remember what we just said which is that if you think about something often enough, it becomes the inclination of your mind? So, the informal way is just randomly looking at human beings and thinking, this person is human being just like me and I want him to be happy. And if you do that a lot it becomes a mental habit and you become a person of kindness and empathy. And everybody loves you and you think just because of the good looks, like me huh? So, that's it. As simple as that. So, that is the informal way. 

So, that's the good news. The better news is that there's an even more effective way of doing that which is an informal practice. So, here's a very interesting story about a recent study. So, here's the study. They get a bunch of 5th graders and first they give them a test, a math test and the math test is designed such that they're guaranteed to do this very well. So, they all get high scores.

So, the kids were randomly assigned into three groups. Two experimental groups and one control group. So, the first experimental group were given something called person praise. They were told, "You did the test really well. You must be really smart." The second group. They were given something called process praise. They were told, "You did really well. You must have worked really hard." And the third group were given no praise at all. They were just told, "You did really well.".

So, the interesting question is what happened after that? After that, they were given another test and this test was hard, designed to be challenging. So, what happened? It turns out that the kids given the person praise, that you must be really smart, did worse than the other two groups. The kids that were given process praise, that they were told you worked really hard, they did better than the other two groups. And the control group, the group that were not given any praise, they there were in the middle. Which is fascinating because it suggests that if you praise people unskillfully you can actually lower their performance, and if you praise people skillfully basically you can increase the performance.

Why is that so? Why is it that person praise leads to lower performance and process praise leads to higher performance? And the reason is this. The reason is mindset. There's this thing called a fixed mindset and the growth mindset. A fixed mindset is when you assume that your success and factors leading to the success are fixed, that I'm smart, I'm given these resources, and so on, I'm born with this, I think I need to change it. So, people with a fixed mindset, they assume that their success is due to the fact that they are fixed, like what they're born with, what they're given and therefore when they experience failure, the way they explain to themselves is, I feel there's nothing I can do about this. 

​People with growth mindset, they assume that their success is due to effort, that they can grow, that they can become better.

And therefore, when they fail, they explain their failure as temporary and something that can be overcome with effort. And a person praise will reinforce the fixed mindset and a process praise reinforces the growth mindset. And it turns out in this study, just one praise is enough to reinforce either a fixed or a growth mindset enough to reflect in test scores. So, my friends, the moral of the story is praise people skillfully. 

So, the topic of today's class is empathy. And empathy, as you know, is now the fourth of the five emotional competencies that were outlined by Daniel Goleman. Empathy here is being used in a very specific way. It has multiple components. The first important point to consider is that empathy refers to the ability to experience and understand what others are feeling, thinking, and while maintaining a very clear discernment about what is your own and what are other people's feelings and perspectives.

The second part is extremely important because without the discernment that what I'm sensing and feeling is really another person's emotional state of other person's perspective, can we can often slip into what's called emotional contagion. And this is something that leads to exhaustion fatigue. Picking up emotions from others and experiencing them as if they were your own.

So, to counter that latter part of this emotional contagion, having a clear understanding about an ability to discern what is it like to be in another person's shoes. What would they be feeling right now? How do they see this situation? And being able to create a model that includes another person's feelings, emotions, thinking, perhaps even their inclinations, interpretations, allows us to be informed to then make very clear decisions about how to act or not to act in different situations. 

​So, one of the things that we've already been working on in this whole course, in fact the first emotional competency, is self-awareness.

And if you remember, self-awareness has to do with a whole set of practices and skills to enhance the ability to sense what's actually happening from moment to moment. One of the brain regions involved in this is the anterior insula, deeply embedded here. It's involved in many different capacities including the ability to focus attention, to feel emotions, and most importantly probably to actually have a sensory experience, a somatic map so to speak, of what all the different sensations that are occurring in the body.

And why that's so important is that, as we've been practicing, the information that's flowing into the insula and somatic sensory cortex actually gives us access to what we're feeling and sensing from moment to moment. And it also, interestingly, is related to the ability to sense and feel others, other people's physical pain, emotional pain. And In fact, there's some studies that suggest that people with greater empathy have higher activation in the anterior insula region that's important for literally feeling, attending, and experiencing somatic sensations in the body.

So, we'll see that prior practices of developing attentional skills, self-awareness, exercising the insula, the insula workout that we talked about through body scan and other practices. These are building blocks for some of the capacities that lead to empathy.

In terms of the neurology of empathy or the neuroscience of empathy. In the past multiple years there's been a huge explosion of interest in what's called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons refer to neural architecture and specifically to perceptual processing regions of the brain, motor areas that then lead to behavioral output. This was first noticed at the University of Parma by researchers who had electrodes embedded inside, underneath the skull, but right on the surface of the cortex of the brain in monkeys. And what they were doing was trying to map neural activity when monkeys were reaching out for food.

The electrodes were still inside the brain when experimenters were moving towards another part of the room, the experimental lab, and were grabbing food and they heard, and they noticed the same set of neurons firing. They repeated this multiple times and then they inferred that there are sets of neurons and neural architecture and neural networks in the brain that allow us to perceive actions in others and to induce motor patterns that are very similar to the motor patterns that are activated when we reach out and do things. 

So, this was initially across species but also within species. So, we know that when children will often mimic each other, or little infants will mimic their parents. And this is again, evidence for this innate neural architecture that becomes the social glue that allows us to perceive others, facial expressions, actions, behaviors, perceive them, create a model that shifts to anterior in the brain to motor areas that allow us to actually kick into motor patterns that mimic those facial expressions or mimic those behaviors. And this is one neural conduit for understanding self and other, social interactions, and leading to understanding empathy and how it functions in part of the brain. 

​One key idea here is physiological entrainment.

So, there are interesting studies that have been done where you take couples. So, John Gottman and Bob Levinson from, I've done studies where you videotape couples interacting with each other while they're hooked up to a whole set of physiological sensors that measure skin conductance, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. and then they have them view their own video clips when they're having a difficult conversation and they do moment to moment ratings of how they were feeling subjectively that aligns with the physiological measures. 

Then you bring in a third person, not a member of this couple, to watch this video. And it turns out that physiological entrainment is the following. The degree to which the person who's watching the couple, watching the body movements, the facial expression, the degree to which the rater, the viewer, actually creates the same kind of physiological response as the person that they're watching in the video. That is part of physiological entrainment.

And in addition to that, subjectively, when people, the raters rate themselves on empathy, the higher the level of empathy that the rater rates about his or herself, the greater the physiological arousal that mimics, that mirrors, that's entrained with the person in the video that they're watching. So, here we see a combination of subjective ratings of empathy, physiological parameters that are in one's own body that's mimicking the others, and that this again, is beginning to explain some of the underlying peripheral nervous system and perhaps even central nervous system factors that are leading to this ability to experience other people's emotions, to put yourself in other people's shoes. 

So, when we are here in this class, our explicit goal is to introduce the idea of empathy as a practice. Again, to emphasize that this is a muscle or let's it's a capacity that we already have to some degree and the goal of the course is to refine it, to become more aware and understanding of the processes and to actually refine our capacity to use empathy. And as we'll see, as we advance in any company, the ability to understand other people, their feelings, their perspectives, their inclinations, is incredibly important in becoming an effective leader.

So, in this class today, we have three specific steps or topic areas. The first is understanding others. How do we actually do this? And we'll be practicing this. Second one is developing others. Out of a sincere interest in seeing the other people flourish, how do we skillfully set up our scaffold other people's experiences so they can flourish and evolve? And then the third part, stepping back and looking more broadly, is what political awareness. 

​How do we understand the network of social relationships that are occurring in a workplace or on a team that then allow us to be more effective, more skillful, more understanding?

So, the first part is understanding others. And as you can see here on this slide, Daniel Goleman, who's contributed greatly to this whole course, provides the following explanation. Empathy represents the foundation skill for all of the social competencies. And the idea here is again that, empathy as a skill that we can enhance, that we can develop, that we can refine is literally the foundation for being effective socially interpersonally.

So, understanding others has at least two different specific psychological capacities that have to be developed. The first part is really cognitive perspective taking and from neuroscience we do know that different distributed brain systems that allow us literally to take the perspective of another. The ability to understand other people's motivations, their intentions, their desires or wishes, even their beliefs and that from this cognitive processing, which relies very much on dorsomedial, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, we can begin to infer or reason what is the mental state right this moment of another person. And obviously this will give us great information and a window into understanding why other people do what they do and how we could positively influence, support, or modify other people's behaviors.

A whole other part is empathy. And again, referring back to the ability to pick up emotions, intentions, building a model of another person's emotional state and how that's changing from moment to moment, that we have other sets of neural architecture that allow us to sense and feel other people's emotions. And again, that all this, this also relies on this whole mirror neurons system, perceptual, leading to motor, leading to behavior.

Wonderful work by Tania Singer, a superstar neuroscientist and her team in Leipzig in Germany. They've begun to map out the neural regions or the neural networks in which these two different capacities: cognitive perspective taking and empathy or empathic concern or empathic resonance might be another term are instantiated. What's interesting about this is that we can see to what degree are these different brain systems coming online when people are experiencing other people's pain, physical or emotional? And, through training, how much can we actually develop the muscle, the signal, the coordinated activity across these different brain regions in which cognitive perspective taking and empathy are instantiated? 

​Some of the foundational empathy practices rely on the following; the first part is seeing similarities.

And this really refers to understanding how self and others are really far more similar than different in terms of the needs, the wishes, the intentions. At a first glance, this is probably a lot easier to do with people who you care for, who you love, who you respect, but gradually we extend this out to strangers, to people we don't know, perhaps people from other countries or even people who join your workplace who you may not initially be very close with. The idea is to enhance the capacity to see similarity.

The second part of this is then offering kindness to others. And that offering that kindness as a way of skillfully influencing, connecting, reinforcing that social glue that's already instantiated in the mutual brains that are pinging and communicating with each other, but this is that motivational state of wanting to actually connect with others through kindness.

The other very strong principle here, and kind also comes from neuroscience; use it or lose it. This is a very strong principle of how neurons that fire together connect together. On a higher order, you can think about this as creating mental habits, even behavioral habits. On the mental level it's whatever one frequently thinks about, ponders. That will become the inclination of the mind. The idea that we build up more momentum towards a certain way of thinking or orienting in the world based on what we practice from moment to moment or day to day. And this is both on a mental level and also on a psychological level. 

The second important point that we were going to cover today is called developing others. And again, this has to do with the understanding that that by understanding others, by seeing the similarity within wish or develop the motivation or the wish to want to help others flourish their own capacities. So, wonderful work by David Rock and his book, Your Brain at Work, has led to a model that he's proposed which is just a simple way to try to understand some things that get in the way of this process or that might be modified so that you can have a more healthy process.

The first idea is that there are threats and rewards. In the same way that food is often a reward or that things that cause fear are threatening. We know that human beings or human animals have evolved exquisite brain systems to be able to detect these signals within milliseconds, but then you step up into the social realm. We understand that there are social threats or triggers, things that trigger one's self or others, and there also are things that are innately rewarding and the more that we have insight into what might serve as a trigger of threat or that might serve as a symbol of reward, this is a very powerful way to influence the workplace, relationships, whole families, etc. 

So, the SCARF model suggests that there are at least five domains that we would sometimes move away from because we perceive them as threatening or if they can be modified and understood and skillfully, we might actually move toward those things. The first is status. A very simple idea that we live in a relational world and that relative power, especially in the workplace, can become a source of threat, it can become a source of concern or jealousy and that there are different ways to work with this. So, on an individual level, one way is to actually play the game of playing yourself, which refers to, what is my status in a specific domain and a specific skill. So, one concrete example, academic writing or writing. 

So, if I view myself in the past at a time when I was not so skillful, I at the present have a much higher status than my version of myself from the past. So, you can understand it and see this relational stance that I can have even towards myself. Likewise, in the workplace, you can see that people have different capacities or have different tenure in a company. And of course, there will be different power structures and different relationships across job positions and so forth.

Second part, probably more intuitive, is certainty or the lack thereof. The idea that when things are uncertain, job description is not clear, the role that the person is playing in a company is not clear, this uncertainty is something that can be seen as a source of threat. So, if it's possible to modify that and to make the parameters more certain, clear, transparent, then people can operate with greater certainty and less uncertainty. And we also know that uncertainty can lead to learned helplessness and that uncertainty in and of itself is a stressor that can literally damage neurons in the hippocampus in the brain and can be seen as a chronic stressor that actually erodes people's ability to use their skills or mastery.

And that leads to the next topic: autonomy. As a leader, it's very important to try to enhance people's autonomy, giving them these contexts, the tools, the resources to develop mastery, to become skillful in what they do so that they can move towards projects, challenging tasks. The extent to which we do not give autonomy or support to others then they might actually see new tasks as not just a challenge but actually as a stressor or even a threat to their view of themself.

​So, this is very important in how to skillfully set up the situation for people to develop mastery, skill, and to feel autonomous in their work life.

The next is relatedness. Extremely important. This goes back to this notion of the social glue and leads most directly back to empathy. The extent to which people feel isolated means that they do not experience the resources, or they do not call on the resources of their social network. This can be very damaging, especially in the workplace, when certain tasks require being very much interconnected with others, relying on other people who have other resources and working together as a team. We know that one of the single most important factors that supports the perception of quality of life is how much we are interconnected in our social network. And if you think about it there's the home life, there's work life, and we spend so much time at work, and that social interconnectedness and relatedness with others, especially when engaged in challenging tasks, can be super important in how much a person feels that they will stay to the job, give it their all, etc. 

So, relatedness in the workplace is extremely important because the degree to which a person feels that they can rely on others when engaged in a job that's very challenging, call on other people as resources to actually get something done is extremely important. The inverse of that is if a person feels isolated, then they will have a much more difficult time at functioning in the workplace.

The fifth factor is fairness. And this is a very interesting domain. Fairness here has to do with what is just and what is perceived as being fair in a social or interpersonal way. Some experiments that have been done in an economic scientific studies suggest that if you give two people, Person A, you give her 100 dollars and she has the right to distribute the money as she wishes. Person B is the receiver. So, when Person B is given the opportunity to accept $1 and Person A keeps $99. Person B, from an economic perspective, of course you take $1 and you're $1 wealthier than you were before. That is normally the rule that would be engaged. However, when something is perceived or evaluated as being unfair, that will trump basic economic valuation. So, that person will say, "That's not accurate and that's not fair for me to be given only $1 when another person receives $99. So, in fact I will simply not accept the gift.

And this is a very interesting behavior and lot of studies have been done to say where does that shift? But the idea here is that if you're in a team or you're in a workplace and others are doing the same or less work, but you are being compensated less so, that the perception of the lack of fairness it can become toxic and destroy the quality of people working with others at the workplace. So, this is a model, the SCARF model, that helps people, especially if you're a leader, manager, etc. or in a position where you can actually sculpt the workplace based on these five factors, you can have a huge amount of influence and either set up parameters that make people more threatened or less inclined to participate or the inverse, actually reward people and help people feel more interconnected.

So, the third important point that we were going to go over today is about political awareness. And again, this has to do with broadening the scope of empathy, not just to one individual or a specific relationship, but to a whole set of relationships in the workplace. And as you can see on this slide here, you can see these kittens. I think there's a spy among us. How do we figure out who's that?

But here, a political awareness again, are specific skills that we have to a certain degree that we can refine and really bring, with a good motivation, to the workplace. So, as you see here, accurately reading the key power relationships among different people or even different systems in a organization. Another very important point here is how do you detect crucial social networks? And this could really be important in terms of how you help sculpt a company, how you motivate groups of people, how you understand how different networks of people work together, and this might be across different divisions.

Another key point here is understanding the forces that actually shape the view and the actions of the members of a company. So, beginning not only with those that are obvious and, on the surface, or that might be explicit but those that are even implied, perhaps never clearly verbalize but they are very active forces that shape what people choose to do, how much they commit to actually coming to work and how they feel at ease or not at ease contributing and collaborating with others. These are key political awareness skills.

And then another factor is accurately reading the organizational and external realities. So, even though an organization might have a very clear mission or motivation, there are external realities, be it a recession or other factors that are outside of the specific company or organization that influence what can and cannot happen. And all of these together constitute political awareness skills.

So how do you begin to develop this in the workplace? Well one, you can intentionally try to cultivate and maintain rich personal networks. And this might be not only within your team but across teams or even across divisions or across domains within a company. Another factor is to read the underlying currents of your own organization, how decisions are made, what influences the key decision makers and how those currents are changing over time. So, this is not just a one moment but it's continually refreshing our understanding of the company.

And then, very importantly, distinguishing between the following; What's my own interest to take to make sure that I develop in skills and develop professionally? What's the interest of the team or teams that I'm working with? What do they need or what do we need as the we, not just me? And then thirdly the organization. Even organizations evolve and mature and develop over time. What does the organization need to actually continue to grow and be healthy?

Another key point here is utilizing self-awareness. Remember that the insula workout, the body scan, the continuous flow of information from your own body that allows us to be informed from moment to moment what's actually happening in myself and others, empathy. To understand your own role. Practice empathic listening frequently. And this is so inexpensive to do and can have such a powerful impact whether it's with one person actively listening as opposed to interrupting, hearing the voices more clearly of the people on a team and then even on organizational level. 

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