Nobody ever said empathy is easy.
Science has been trying to untangle the mystery of empathy for at least a quarter of a century. And it turns out the ability to “walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes” emotionally may turn out to be one of the more complex operations our brains can engage in. It’s a phenomenon that’s controlled at least in part, some researchers believe, by hormones and specialized neurons in the brain. That means whether we like it or not, we may not be entirely in control of how empathetic we are at any given time.
In fact, one British researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen, author of Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, has proposed that each individual human’s capacity for empathy, like height or eye color, is an inborn trait. According to his hypothesis, each person’s degree of empathy, measured by an EQ (Emotional Quotient) test, can be placed on a continuum shaped like a bell curve. The continuum itself is divided into six segments or “degrees” of empathy; you’re either born with a little or a lot of empathy, on a scale of zero (no empathy whatsoever) to six (so much empathy you may actually feel physical pain when you see another living creature being harmed).
Baron-Cohen’s theory is intriguing, to be sure, but it doesn’t necessarily address another truth about an individual’s capacity for empathy: it can wax and wane depending on the day, the hour, and the circumstances. The majority of people, who fall in the middle of the empathy bell curve, can’t bring a full measure of empathy to the table on days when we’re feeling tired, overstressed, overworked, or frazzled.
Why is this important? Because empathy (or the lack thereof) forms the foundation trust—and that is the starting point of working together, solving problems, and communicating effectively and constructively.
Dr. Thomas Gordon said, “Empathy is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others and understand their ‘personal world of meaning’—how they view their reality, how they feel about things. Active Listening performs this very function.” But he also warned against attempting to use Active Listening when empathy is at an ebb: “To listen to another person empathically and accurately requires intense attention, so you will find you cannot listen with the required concentration if you are engrossed in your own thoughts or worried about something. Group members don’t need leaders who always listen; they do need leaders who listen when they can genuinely feel understanding, accepting, and caring.”
With that said, let’s explore a bit more about what we know about the science of empathy.
Chemicals Associated with Developing and Maintaining Trust
An incredibly detailed and fascinating exploration of the neurochemicals involved in trust traces the role of a cocktail of brain chemicals in the process of establishing, building, and maintaining trust:
- Oxytocin encourages bonding and mutual trust, as well as triggering the release of serotonin and dopamine
- Serotonin boosts feelings of well-being and overall mood, as well as feelings of collegiality
- Dopamine is associated with the reward centers of the brain; it’s released when we seek and receive good things
Paul Zak, one of the original researchers into the effects of oxytocin, calls this hormone cascade of oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin the “Human Oxytocin Medicated Empathy” (HOME) circuit.
In early studies, under highly controlled laboratory conditions, oxytocin consistently influenced behavior in positive ways—making people more cooperative and more generous. As a result, for many years, oxytocin was dubbed “the moral molecule” in the popular press. But those results may have been due more to study designs than oxytocin itself. More recent research suggests the effect of oxytocin may not be exclusively positive after all. A 2009 study found that oxytocin actually increased feelings of envy and schadenfreude (gloating) when test subjects saw others receiving unequal amounts of money. And a 2014 study found that people became more likely to cheat and lie to benefit their team or group if they first inhale oxytocin, suggesting that the hormone may simply shift a person’s focus from individual benefit to that of the group.
All of which is to say, the currently available evidence seems to support the hypothesis that oxytocin does, in fact, boost empathy—at least for members of our own team or group. (That’s good news in a workplace setting, assuming leaders have established a healthy culture free of cutthroat competition.)
Neurons Associated with Mirroring Back
You know all those studies about how watching violent films and playing violent videogames make people more aggressive? One possible reason for that may be mirror neurons—specialized brain cells that activate when we observing another person performing a specific actions, like smiling, yawning, or picking up a cup from a table.
Yes, it turns out that the reason yawns are contagious may have a basis in neurobiology.
What does this mean for problem solving and Active Listening? Mirroring back what a person with a problem has just said activates mirror neurons in the same way that mirroring gestures does, which releases—you guessed it—oxytocin. Which builds trust. Which kicks off the beneficial HOME circuit, which feeds back upon itself, creating an ever-strengthening loop of trust and goodwill.
But What if a Leader Doesn’t Have a Deep Well of “Natural” Empathy?
According to Baron-Cohen’s model, nearly everybody has at least some empathy. Even if a person is a 2 or a 3 on the bell curve (which would indicate low natural empathy) and has a hard time figuring out what others are thinking or feeling just by observing at them, that doesn’t mean he or she cannot be an effective leader.
The kind of empathy required for Active Listening is grounded in awareness that the other person’s feelings and thoughts are necessarily different than one’s own, and the willingness to try to view the world from that perspective—at least for long enough to help solve a problem. And there are also two other preconditions for effective Active Listening: acceptance of the other person’s feelings during the Active Listening session, and genuineness—the willingness to be fully oneself.
Science is a curious thing; sometimes it’s light-years ahead of our ability to understand its implications, and sometimes it seems to be scampering to catch up to assumptions we’ve been making for thousands of years. The foundations of Leader Effectiveness Training were laid decades before functional MRIs could study which areas of the brain light up when people watch videos or trade sums of money in a psychological laboratory. And yet every day, behavioral researchers are finding more and more evidence specific skills like Active Listening can help to foster trust, empathy, constructive communication, and problem-solving.