Empathy-The Path to Truth and Balance

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When I wrote The Power of Empathy I defined empathy as the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. I knew in my heart and through my experience that empathy was and is the key to personal and professional success. I was basing my opinions on my experience as a clinical psychologist and as a husband, dad, friend and community member.

    I knew two things: we are born with this capacity and if not developed it will atrophy like an unused muscle, and I knew from leading group sessions for over 25 years that human beings can be taught how to expand their empathic range in ways that will reap profound benefits.

   In recent years research on empathy has exploded. We now know we have empathy neurons, called mirror neurons.  We know that empathy is the brain’s salve for limiting aggression; it has an inhibitory effect on violence and produces successful negotiation rather than needless confrontation. Research has confirmed that empathy is the key to stopping the bullying in our schools and the terrorism that exists around the world.                                                                                                                                   We know that so called “empathy organizations” like IBM and Harley Davidson grasp opportunities quicker, react to change with less anxiety and they offer their employees a sense of purpose in their work that fuels a positive work environment.

  Our schools are beginning to teach empathy at early ages and the benefits are not only being displayed in increased interpersonal skills, but test scores have been advanced for those young people displaying the highest capacity for empathy.

   Jeremy Rifkin, recently published “The Empathic Civilization”. He extensively reviewed research from biological and cognitive scientists concluding that empathy will likely determine the fate of our species. He encourages readers to contemplate what he considers to be the greatest question of our time: Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the earth?

      President Barack Obama has evoked much reaction with his frequent use of the word empathy. As a senator he indicated that John Roberts was deficient in his breath of empathy. Subsequently he indicated the Supreme Court needed a person with empathic depth which led to the nomination of then judge Sonia Sotomayor. It is amazing to me that empathy would not be a characteristic expected of all individuals in positions of authority. How else can we possibly understand, with accuracy, the variables that accompany each significant problem we face?

   Studies after study in schools of business have determined that the main reason for failure in leadership, despite strong technical skills, has been poor interpersonal skills, in particular limited capacity for empathy. These studies have consistently indicated that the trait shared by most successful executives is the ability to “sense other’s needs” and “make others feel heard”. We know from our recent uncovering of Wall Street ethics that empathy is the key to constructive, ethical business practice. Business schools throughout the country are now  integrating ethical, empathic practice in their curriculums.

      The greatest role that empathy plays is to allow us to establish and maintain intimacy in love relationships. Without empathy guiding the way closeness cannot be established and we cannot possibly understand our partner on a deeper level. Empathy leads us from superficial connections to deep, heart-felt relationships that accept the whole person, imperfections and all. That acceptance is both internal and external, for at the same time empathy embraces others it leads us to accept ourselves with all our limitations and shortcomings. Through empathy we learn how to love each other deeply and truly, and we discover why the search for the real person rather than the right person is central to our quest for happiness.

   Research on parenting styles has consistently revealed that parents who listen and interact with their children from an empathic perspective raise children who are happier, more secure and who are able to make relationships of diversity with relative ease. These children are likely to become leaders who others seek out as they become noted for having an even handed way of dealing with people. They become better decision makers and better negotiators’.

 Empathy, in essence, is the key to a balanced life filled with love, healthy accomplishment and a strong relationship to community and the world at large.

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Arthur Ciaramicoli PhD

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