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15 May 2014

People Who Feel What Others Are Feeling



Sensitivity can produce performance challenges. It’s difficult for people to understand this sensitivity when coaching through these challenges. An especially challenging group involves people who can feel what others are feeling. Generally, we call them empathic.

Many don’t believe this though, actually feeling what others are feeling. They say what’s really happening is at best an appreciation for others’ feelings. This is usually followed by, “Why can’t they just ignore that and focus on their work?”

First, there is neither a definitive body of research nor a consensus on exactly what empathy is and how it works. It’s clear though that various kinds of empathy exist and vary by person. One is cognitive empathy, being able to observe cues and conclude what others are feeling. Smiles usually mean something pleasant for instance. Emotional empathy is more about feeling someone’s feeling. Brain scans show the same areas of the brain being stimulated as though they were personally having the feeling themselves. For some this is extremely intense, even to the point of affecting them deeply or causing physical ailments similar to the other person. An extreme example is the death of a child, some parents die too in the form of emotionally challenging lives. Some research indicates close to thirty percent could be “acutely empathetic.”

So why work through these sensitivities? It’s easy. Sensitive people can make our teams better, even smarter. Additionally, they give us a good feel for the organization’s emotional state, its morale for instance. They will also help foster a cooperative culture versus a self-interested one; however, this helpfulness can cause empathetic people’s individual performances to suffer.

Yes, for some of us, this remains a difficult leap. That usually means our brains weren’t created for this brand of empathy just as some brains weren’t created for statistical analysis.

3 Responses

  1. Of course, empathic people can overdo their response or use their response to justify their not addressing job-related tasks. But also for sure, empathic people are important to any task as well. One of Dan Pink’s Three Elements for increased intrinsic motivation is purpose. Even if the empathy is not directed related to the project (e.g., remembering a team member’s family member’s interest), such times add to team chemistry. Again, as long as it is kept in perspective…

    1. Mike Lehr

      Yes, John, perspective is important as is true for any human attribute. I often use statistical and scientific analysis as contrasts to empathy. People with minds more oriented around those kind of analyses are useful too but must also be placed in perspective. The problem I see is that in business we tend to be more critical and cautious with empathetic individuals than we are with those possessing more statistically and scientifically oriented minds. As a result, we tend to quantify and research things that don’t need it or don’t add any pragmatic value to our decisions. This can result in “paralysis by analysis” or slowdowns creating missed opportunities.

      So, to use your words, statistical and scientific analyses are good, “as long as [they] are kept in perspective.” True?

      1. Absolutely agree. As often happens, dialogue often reminds me of a quote from Albert Einstein: ” Some things that should be counted can’t be and some things that are counted shouldn’t be!!!”

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