6 Habits of Highly Empathic People



These are the six habits described in the movie
  1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers
  2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
  3. Try another person's life
  4. Listen hard and open up
  5. Inspire social change
  6. Develop an ambitious imagination

Most of us will feel at ease with some of these habits and perhaps less familiar with others. Take a few moments to review which of these habits comes easily to you and which ones need more work.

Some obstacles to empathy
Prejudice: when we create stereotypes and dehumanize the other person, often based on erroneous first impressions and judgements.

At work we might do this towards another department, or a difficult client, or customer. We might even do it with our boss. Ask yourself whether this is a barrier for you.

Authority: the human tendency to obey orders - ‘I was just doing my job’.

Check if you find yourself hiding behind guidelines you have to follow.

Distance: this can be physical distance, social difference or temporal difference – the difficulty of feeling how it is for someone thousands of miles away from where we live; people living a very different kind of life, or people living one hundred years from now.

If your workplace covers wide area, or if it works internationally, there could be sections that feel a long way away and outside of your field of concern.

Denial: we can reason away having to take action about something  

Eg. My contribution is so small, what difference can it make?

If we feel powerless at work, we may fall into this barrier. We can work with it by looking at the choices we make.


A case study
The study that Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall carried out at the end of the Second World War is a disturbing example of how some of these barriers can be manipulated.

Marshall was asked to set up a study on how soldiers conducted themselves during battle. 

Marshall was a US Army historian in the Pacific during the Second World War. He had a team of historians working for him and together they carried out research based on individual and group interviews with thousands of soldiers from more than 400 infantry companies immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops. 

The results were a revelation – they showed that only 15 to 20 per cent of American riflemen actually fired their weapons at the enemy. However, those who did not fire did not run away or hide. Instead they risked great danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition or run messages.

These findings were taken seriously by the American military and led to the institution of new training strategies that were designed to enable soldiers to overcome their natural reluctance to kill. These strategies include desensitization conditioning and denialdefence mechanisms. 

Desensitization works by using language and images that dehumanize the troops of the opposing army, so it is harder to see them as other human beings and easier to see them as an ‘enemy’. Troops are encouraged to see killing the enemy as part of their job and to view the enemy as less than human. Instead of learning to shoot using a static target, soldiers dressed in full combat gear stand in a foxhole and fire at human-shaped targets that pop up in front of them. In this way, the soldiers become more conditioned to the act of shooting to kill. sometimes the targets are filled with red paint to make the experience of ‘killing’ them even more realistic. 

Bill Jordan, a career US Border Patrol officer explains:

There is a natural disinclination to pull the trigger when your weapon is pointed at a human. To aid in overcoming this resistance it is helpful if you can will yourself to think of your opponent as a mere target and not as a human being. In this connection you should go further and pick a spot on your target. This will allow better concentration and further remove the human element from your thinking.

He calls this process ‘manufactured contempt’ and it describes how denial defence mechanisms work.

Such methods did indeed serve to suppress soldiers’ natural empathy towards their opponents, to the extent that by the Korean War 55 per cent of soldiers fired their rifles and by the Vietnam War this proportion had reached 95 per cent. 

However, the story does not end there – it is well known now that many of the soldiers who returned from Vietnam were severely traumatized by their experiences, with between 28 and 54 per cent suffering from Post-Traumatic stress Disorder (PTSD).

How we can overcome these barriers
Humanize the other:  put a face on a problem in order to make it ‘real’ Eg. the reaction to the images of the drowned Syrian toddler near the Turkish resort of Bodrum opened up a wave of sympathy for refugees.

Discover what you share and what you don’t share:  this is what happens when you begin to see other people as another you and to realize the depth of experience that we all share.

Empathize with the enemy: this is when we try to see things from the point of view of someone we do not agree with – a sulky teenager, an unsympathetic politician, or even a terrorist. It is not easy but in order to avoid hate and anger we need to invest some energy into trying to understand why people do the things they do, even if (or especially if) we do not agree with them.

In this regard, I find this quote from Abraham Lincoln very helpful:  
I don't like that man. I must get to know him better. 


How To Make Kindness Matter At Work

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