Becoming More Empathetic – (Bringing Down Some of the Barriers)

Most scientists agree that we are born to cooperate with others.  In other words, we are born to be more “WE”  than “ME.”  Sometimes we wonder. The mounting research continues to paint a much rosier and more positive picture at least for the potential of a kinder, gentler workplace, society and planet.

According to Dr. Thomas Tomasello, author of “Why We Cooperate,” shared intentionality is the essence of human nature.  He writes, “Children are altruistic by nature, and though they are also naturally selfish, all parents need do is try to tip the balance toward social behavior.”  Given the increasing evidence of our natural tendencies towards cooperation with others, it’s logical to question – what happens to those innate impulses as we grow up? Why do so many of our institutions seem cold to the needs of people? Why do so many of our workplaces seem driven more by fear and greed than by equanimity and caring? 
These are important questions that speak to the ways in which we have shaped our personal and social structures over time – and allowed them to work against our innate values of cooperation and empathy. While we may not feel we have much control to change prevailing social systems – we do have control over our own emotional domain.  We know that as the trusting and playful child within us interacted with the world, we made choices for self-protection that have suppressed those early positive impulses.

Over time, those impulses formed into “strategies” to get by and get what we want,  rather than what we truly need. Let’s also keep in mind that repetitive thinking, feelings and behaviors take shape as part of our neural networking. If we don’t like the programming, we can change the software, but it takes effort  Reawakening our empathic impulses can be the key to enormous opportunities for greater self-evolution. Cultivating empathy can trigger a whole array of complementary positive emotions within us.  While our original biological proclivity towards empathy seems geared towards productive social cooperation, ” enlightened self-interest” also translates into enormous benefits for the individual.  In this fascinating,  TED TALK, Daniel Goleman,  author of Emotional Intelligence, provides some insights into how empathy and compassion work and some reasons why we may or may not act on our innate impulses. 

What Stops Us?  7 Beliefs That Can Block Empathy

Beliefs play a big role in governing our choices (conscious and unconscious). And since beliefs fuel our emotions and result in behaviors, they can impede or enable our natural empathic flow towards others.  Here are a few examples of empathy blocking beliefs:

  • We believe that certain circumstances are not appropriate for demonstrating empathy. This is especially true when it comes to beliefs about work, business, etc. (This belief is often a branch of a larger belief that business and the personal life are or should be separate.)
  • We believe that certain people, or categories of people, are not deserving of our empathy.
  • We believe that human nature is essentially selfish (except our own?)
  • We believe that if we relate empathically we will get: lost emotionally, taken advantage of, manipulated or be perceived as soft or weak.
  • We believe that empathy doesn’t work – or that it doesn’t work with certain people and or situations
  • We believe that empathy is not equated with “results”
  • We believe we must agree with or forgive the beliefs or actions  of others in order to extend our empathy to them

Do you find any of your own beliefs represented anywhere on this list?  Well, you are a rare bird if you do not!  We all grapple with these choices, in some form or another, as we attempt to meet our daily needs and navigate life’s challenges. Unearthing the beliefs you hold about empathy is a critical first step in the process of expanding your capacity and empathic skills.Understanding when, how and who you extend empathy to will also provide you with a blueprint to the parameters you’ve created to contain your feelings.

Thanks for reading,

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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