The Power of Empathy

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empathy-mjv-blog “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” – Henry David Thoreau

Does anyone doubt that to walk in someone else’s shoes can transform businesses? The importance of empathy in the business world is a recurring theme when discussing the changing scenarios of the current market. In this post we will discuss what empathy actually is and its presence now-a-days.

 What is Empathy?

“To walk in another man’s shoes” is an expression that translates very accurately what empathy means – a person’s ability to put themselves in someone else’s place and feel their emotions, be them positive or negative. Empathy is defined as the capacity to identify with another person, to feel what they feel, to want what they want, to learn how they learn.

In sociology, empathy is a type of cognition of the “social self” dependent on three aptitudes: to see oneself from another person’s perspective, to see someone else’s perspective or to see others from their own perspective.

The science behind empathy

The discovery of the mirror neurons, in the mid 90s, changed the way we think about ourselves, and is considered one of the most important finds regarding the evolution of the human brain.

Spread throughout crucial parts of the brain, neurons act when we perform an action and also when we watch someone else perform it. These cells activate in response to chains of action.

This is what happens when, for example, a baby starts to cry because another baby close by is crying. Or in the case of laughter, which spreads in a group even if people are not aware of why others are laughing.

If you see someone emotionally afflicted for whatever reason, the mirror neurons in your brain will simulate affliction. You automatically feel empathy for the other person because you, literally, feel what they are feeling.

The logic of psychology has concluded that empathy is an identification process, where someone puts himself in the place of someone else and, based on his own suppositions or impressions, tries to understand the other’s behavior. It’s part of a deep emotional intelligence. Empathy allows those who possess it to see the world through the eyes of others and understand their perspectives in a unique way.

It’s helpful to note that empathy is not the same as that golden rule that states “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This recommendation is based on our own self interests and not related to another person.

A quote from an Irish romantic playwright illustrates these observations well. It says: “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” And that is precisely the point. Empathy is about discovering these different tastes.

Empathy x Sympathy

understanding empathyThough similar, these words have different meanings and should be used in different situations. Despite both contributing to a good development of human relations, their concepts are distinct.

While sympathy involves the ability to think or feel in a similar way, empathy relies on mechanisms such as the ability to understand, to project; it’s an identification process, to see what the others see; to think what others think; to feel what others feel. Unlike sympathy, empathy requires time and consideration.

 Empathy around the world

Brené Brown is a renowned researcher of human relations at Houston University. In a lecture at the 2012 TEDXHouston, the researcher talked about a study by Theresa Weisman, a nursing student that researched various professions in which empathy is relevant. She came up with four pillars:

– The first one is gaining perspective, in other words, the ability to gain or recognize a person’s perspective as true;
– The second one, which is directly linked to the first, is the absence of judgement, which is very complicated: throw the first stone he who has never sinned;
– The third pillar is the recognition of emotions in another person;
– And last, but not least, the communication of these emotions.

The relevance of this theme is such that in September of last year the world’s first Museum of Empathy opened in London. In this museum the visitors discover a space where they can put themselves in the place of others and see the world through their eyes. The goal is to develop more empathy and create a global revolution through human relations.

The experience in the museum begins with the visitor giving their shoe size so they can receive someone else’s shoes. He must walk about 1.5 kilometers in these and, while walking in someone else’s shoes, the visitor listens to an audio in an iPod that tells the story of the shoe owner, as if it were a conversation with someone who is not there and will describe the world from their own perspective.

In New York, we have the Applied Empathy, a monthly meeting where individuals from different areas are invited to discuss the different ways they incorporate empathy into their personal and professional lives with the audience. Another example comes from the Art Department at the University of Stanford, in California, that promoted, in August of last year and January of this year, an exhibit dedicated to empathy, represented through the eyes of Buddhism, Christianity, Enlightenment and photographs from the Human Rights age. There are several events, websites and books dedicated to this theme.

What about the corporate environment?

Empathy, as an essential aspect of life in society, is an international consensus. Its influence in the business world is widely discussed and its practice strongly recommended. It’s an essencial part of Design Thinking process and  very useful in the Immersion phase when it is necessary to identify the needs of the people to whom the project is intended.

For now, we invite you to think about the presence of empathy in your actions and day to day life and business – how have you been perceiving those around you and in your company?

Did you like this post? You can share it with your friends and colleagues! If you would like to better understand what empathy means in the corporative world, download our Design Thinking – Business Innovation book for free.



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