By Brent Green, Ph.D., MPH, RODP
Former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow
With President Biden’s first speech to the nation focused on Covid-19 prevention we witnessed a strong empathetic message for everyone, practice safe guidelines to reduce virus transmission and staggering death rates. More recently the President telephoned the George Floyd family to express general support. Empathy is now back in our national discourse.
In the business world and in popular culture empathy has gained steady prominence. Daniel Goleman who popularized the term ‘emotional intelligence’ (or E.I.) in 1995 as equal if not more important than I.Q. He identified empathy as a core component. Later in a Harvard Business Review article ‘What Makes a Leader’ Goleman discusses E.I. as the sine qua non of leadership and again as a core communication skill.
The business practice of ‘design thinking’ encourages organizations to research customer empathy as key to understanding marketplace product or service need and solution design. Empathy is all the more important given our growing multicultural perspectives of reality.
What is this phenomena of empathy? Can professional consultants, coaches, attorneys, MBAs, Human Resource Professionals, Clergy, therapists and others think deeper about the merits of empathy. Below I will explore these questions.
While several definitions exist two generic types of empathy are evident. First, one-way empathy is the capacity to relate, be simpatico, ‘read’ others. George Herbert Mead called this ‘taking the role of the other’. Hence, we thoughtfully consider others and their viewpoint during our interaction. This is often easier said than done in today’s climate of extreme views.
We may have to practice a maturity once voiced by Aristotle, that a mature mind can hold one view while considering another which we may not agree with. Second, there is two-way empathy which includes the above but embraces the communication of our understanding back to the other person we are relating to; I will explore this further below.