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What Does it Mean to Live in an Age of Empathy?

October 9, 2014


Three stories led me here today.


  •  In a recent PRI (Public Radio International) The World’s host, Marco Werman talked with Ane Bjøru Fjeldsæter, an MSF Mental Health Manager from Norway. Ane, a psychologist, has just returned from Liberia where she treated 8-year-old, Patrick, hospitalized along with his father after his mother’s death from Ebola.  Ane’s self-selected job, as volunteer psychologist, brought her into close contact with Patrick despite the layers of protective gear keeping them apart. “This kid — he was my best friend in Liberia,” says Ane as she shares her relief at Patrick’s survival and his dearest wish for a bicycle when he gets well.  Happily, Ane has been in touch with a Brazilian journalist traveling to the area, who will get Patrick that bike he wants.
  • According to the annual survey conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) nearly 35,000 walruses have come ashore in northwestern Alaska because they cannot find sea ice for resting during the warmer months. This phenomenon has worsened since 2007 when large herds were first spotted.  As the Washington Post reported, “What looks like a cuddly gathering — walruses aping, say, “March of the Penguins” — is anything but. Gathered in large numbers on shore, animals can quickly transmit disease. Food can become scarce. Stampedes can kill animals, especially calves. There are also brown bears and polar bears about.
  • Chances are if you’ve lived in the U.S. you’ve been a customer of the “iconic” fast food chain, Dunkin’Donuts. Maria Fernandes, a 32-year-old employee may have even served you – you see Maria worked in three different locations in different shifts. This wasn’t a “lifestyle” choice – Maria like millions of low wage American workers cannot afford to live on the $7.25 per hour she earns.  Tragically Maria was found dead in her car at a convenience store parking lot, where she often stopped to nap between jobs. Authorities suspect Maria died from fumes caused by an overturned gasoline can she kept in the trunk in case she ran out of fuel between shifts. She died in her Dunkin’ Donuts uniform. The company issued a statement expressing their sympathies to her family.

So what do Maria, 35,000 stranded walruses and an eight year old Liberian boy’s recovery from Ebola have in common?  This is the question that has stayed with me for days.

If we are living in a so-called Age of Empathy – what does it mean? What does it mean for an individual, a co-worker, an employer, a neighbor, a city or a world society to live with empathy in the face of such harsh daily realities? What will we do differently in our personal and social lives? What kind of social and economic policies will we collectively sanction? What kinds of leaders will we insist responsibly govern our institutions?  Will we continue to ignore our ravaged planet or remain impervious to global health needs or our local fast-food server’s daily struggle for survival?

For me, these are the most salient questions of the day. The answers (our response) to them will define life for the rest of this century and beyond. While we are consumed with the day to day demands of our  lives – something far greater is deciding what kind of future we’ll all inherit.

In his big, meaty, 2010 book, The Empathic Civilization, prolific author, Wharton Business School economist and former EU (European Union) advisor, Jeremy Rifkin wrote, “Empathy conjures up active engagement — the willingness of an observer to become part of another’s experience, to share the feeling of that experience.”

Rifkin adds an important dimension in his description, “Empathy is not just about feeling for another’s suffering. One can also empathize with another’s joy.  Indeed, empathic moments are the most intensely alive experiences we ever have. We empathize with each other’s struggles against death and for life. One acknowledges the whiff of death in another’s frailties and vulnerabilities. No one ever empathizes with a perfect being.”

Rifkin’s sweeping hypothesis received mixed reviews with many critics noting that the author provided little evidence that empathy in humans can or will result in their ability to address global challenges or crises. One wonders what they think will?

Empathy is “Hot” or Not

In her Harvard Business Review article, Management’s 3 Eras, author Rita McGrath, states that since the Industrial Revolution management has gone through three eras: execution, expertise and now empathy. McGrath points out, Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.”

An era of empathy, she believes, would not only affect the customer but the employee contract itself. I’ll second that and venture a guess that organizations motivated by real empathy would revolutionize the entire nature of work.

While no zeitgeist, clearly there is something in the cultural wind that invests hope in empathy’s potential power to transform personal and collective experience.  Calls for more empathy on the internet, in healthcare, in user experience (UX), in literature, in interpersonal contact – even an online library to resource the growing volumes of information on the topic are common. While many individuals (and certainly organizational leaders) are still bewildered by the implications of living with conscious empathy, many now agree the era of organization/institution as machine is in rapid decline.

While detractors are making cases against empathy as a tool in the fundamental rethinking of what’s needed in a functional, even thriving 21st century; the case for empathy is compelling. If we are emerging from an era of unbridled expansion, exploitation (of human and other natural resources), distorted individualism and competition, then surely the development of conscious empathy may be one of our most precious natural assets.

Some critics of universal empathy doubt whether we humans will be able to overcome our natural biases and tribal favoritism to expand to the wider circles needed to address the needs of mass culture. Our ethical regard, they say, will inevitably be eclipsed by the tsunami of need that overwhelms our biological capacity to care beyond our “affective communities.”

Other critics point to the limits of quixotic, narrow-minded empathetic impulses that can never be reliable enough to scale-up to address the social, economic and moral challenges we face as a culture. Empathy, as defined by these critics is unreliable, irrational and necessarily reactive

In his response to New Yorker author Paul Bloom’s much publicized case against empathy, Michael Zakaras contends that we need more not less empathy. Zacharas contends that we live in “an age of unprecedented global connectivity and rapid change, and empathy can help us navigate that world smartly and morally as we collide with others. In addition to getting along better, empathy will help us to negotiate more effectively, resolve conflicts more quickly, and work more collaboratively with our colleagues.” Far from a “uniformed gut reaction” Zakaras calls this “cognitive empathy.”

Beyond Empathy

What strikes me about our discussions about empathy is how polarized our thinking has already become. While critics are decrying the value of empathy as a reliable social tool, the reality is that the long-ignored study of emotions like empathy is still in a nascent stage.   Pundits confused about the distinctions between feelings of empathy vs. compassion already declare that empathy’s usefulness is clouded by biases for “six year olds with brown eyes.” They contend that empathy “isn’t a reliable way of doing good”

This thinking, however well or ill-formed, is based on an idea of empathy that is involuntary and passive.  The assumption is that all empathetic responses are essentially unconscious – reactive. This belief presumes that if I am acting from my empathetic response, I must be irrational. In this model, there are no powers of observation, thinking or learning in the process.

The failure of these assumptions and the pessimistic branding of empathy as unreliable are also based on a common misconception that feelings happen singularly; instead they act concurrently. Empathy, like all other emotions, is the result of an integrated, embodied experience. How this occurs is still not understood. No emotion stands alone; rather they are part of a spectrum of feelings. Where there is empathy, there may be doubt, guilt, fear or any combination of feelings.

Instead of debating the value of empathy, we should be discussing ways to develop it in our cultures. The greater our understanding is of how we respond to the world – empathetically – the more we can develop it consciously.  Awareness of our own empathy helps us to clarify our thinking process, the how and why of our beliefs and what we really value. The more we understand what blocks our empathy – the more we expand our field of perception. After all, my ability to see you more clearly is predicated on my ability to see myself accurately.

Empathy does not have to “yield to reason” as so many detractors declare – it needs to integrate with reason to provide deeper and more sustainable approaches to what we face in a very challenging world.


Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Related Article: What Blocks Our Empathy?

Photo: Imaginary Foundation:  Today is John Lennon’s Birthday. He would have been 74 – imagine.










5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ray Williams permalink
    October 9, 2014 7:20 am

    Louise, what a great post. And so timely. I wrote a piece a while back about the Age of Empathy for Psychology Today you might find interesting:

    • October 9, 2014 8:31 am

      Hi Ray
      Thanks – so pleased you liked it. And thanks for the link to your article in Psych Today – recommend all my readers to check it out.


  2. Joseph George permalink
    October 9, 2014 2:59 pm

    Presenceful contribution Louise. What I Admire about this piece is you retaining your natural flow and actually amassing pertinent persuasion for empathy in the process. Bravo again.


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