Beyond empathy

As a sociatrist, I’m passionate about people in business developing greater ability to stand in each others’ shoes.  It’s one of the cornerstones of the work we do at Quantum Shift and is central to nurturing greater health in organisations.  This is often given the name “empathy”.  I bristle a little, however, when I hear someone say, “I can have empathy for them, but…..”  What’s that expression?  Everything before the “but” is bulls**t.  I go along with Professor Simon Baron Cohen’s idea that empathy sits along a spectrum.  I also go along with Martin Buber’s suggestion that the point on the spectrum at which we start treating people as objects is when we are capable of cruelty.  At the same time, I would extend this to say that we can go beyond empathy and develop the ability to role reverse with others.  There is an embodied knowing that comes via the act of role reversal, beyond mere thought and cognitive understanding, which facilitates a deeper ability to live in someone else’s skin.  Getting this at a head, heart and gut level changes our world beyond what we thought possible.  It becomes harder to switch off our empathy and behave as if people are mere resources when we have a full experience of what it’s like for them.  Personally, I also find that I am more able to stop myself mid-sentence when I hear myself saying, “I understand where they’re coming from, but….” and upon reflection, widen my perspective on the other person a little more.  Role reversal helps to unshackle us from the (mostly unconscious) chains we keep ourselves in, with regards our views of other people.

In some circles, it is increasingly accepted that empathy is a key capability of a leader.  Even in the face of research, some still ignore this.  However, there is a growing tide of evidence that empathy is a core skill for the modern workplace.  Empathic ability is positively correlated to better performance as a leader.  It facilitates much improved working relationships and in the modern workplace, we often don’t get to choose who we work with.  An increasingly diverse workforce creates challenges for us and in order for us to get things done, we need to learn how to get on with a greater variety of working styles, viewpoints and personalities.  Getting a deep, felt sense of what it’s like for someone else grants us greater ability to make decisions, be inclusive, resolve conflicts and share responsibility.

I was deeply touched to read of a young man, conservative, self-confessed homophobe and Christian, who decided to live his life for one year as a gay man.  He was moved by a Christian friend’s experience of being kicked out of home when she came out as a lesbian and decided that he really wanted to understand what it was like to be gay.  This was no mere thought experiment; he was determined to truly walk in the shoes of a homosexual man.  By immersing himself in the experience, which included coming out to his family, he developed a profound understanding of what it was like to actually be a gay man.  He came out of the year with his faith reaffirmed, along with the belief that gay people need equal rights.  I would attribute his insights to the fact that for one year of his life, he gave up his position and fully took up the role of another.

“The challenge of understanding another person and what it takes to truly feel understood by another is at the hub of human social existence”, according to Dr. Dani Yaniv at the University of Haifa, in his 2012 paper, “Dynamics of Creativity and Empathy in Role Reversal: Contributions from Neuroscience.”  We are utterly and inextricably linked to all human life.  That goes for business, too.  Yet how easy it is to dispense with another’s viewpoint if it doesn’t match ours or disregard another’s experience if it’s too far from our ken or to dispose of someone’s creative contributions if they come from a value or belief system we think is irrelevant.  I will put my hand up and say I am guilty of these things at times; there are moments when I wish I could have shown more equanimity, generosity of spirit and caring.  I’m flawed; there, I’ve said it.  Send me back to the factory to be re-programmed.

While it is an interesting paradox that we can never really know what someone else is experiencing, we can develop the ability to role reverse, thus allowing our knowing of others to deepen and unfold.  We generate in ourselves a creative empathy that brings new ways of being with people.  When we role reverse, we are wholly someone else just for a moment and left to learn from what we discover.  Having had a mind-body experience of another’s world, our lives and the lives of others are changed forever, sometimes subtly or, in the case of that young Christian man, quite dramatically.  Like that young man, our view of others is expanded, with our own selves intact.  We are able to transcend ourselves through the act of role reversal.

Role reversal leads us outside our own experience and world view and into those of another.  We cannot unlearn what we have learnt when it’s a visceral, whole person experience.  We can, if we really apply ourselves, pretend not to know what it’s like from another’s point of view, but having truly given ourselves to the experience of another’s existence, this would require in us to take up a role of particularly selfish and uncaring dimension.  What would be the use of that?

When it comes to empathy, it’s often easier to find it for people with whom we share some values or beliefs.  As I referred to in my interview with Dan Oestreich, role reversal takes us beyond empathy, however.  When we really get stuck with someone, when they “push our buttons”, it can be hard to find a way to understand that person.  Their behaviours and attitudes mystify us and, left unaddressed, we can begin to characterise them by what we see as their faults.  We do ourselves and others a disservice when we reduce someone to a bunch of “bad” behaviours.  Doing this leaves the salesperson or customer service rep, for example, in a poorer position when they are not able to understand another person’s circumstances accurately.  When we see another person’s behaviours as coming from a real and value-based place, we become freer to meet their concerns.

A manager we once worked with in the course of a leader development process described an employee she referred to as a “bad egg”.  This manager, I’ll call her Stacey, had the wherewithal to know that this employee, whom I’ll call Emily, was not an intrinsically bad person, but that some of their behaviours at work made it particularly challenging to work alongside.  What Stacey wanted to learn was a greater ability in herself to work with Emily.  That was the first step: engaging her will.  Stacey had made a conscious decision to bring her relationship with Emily into the domain of this workshop and declare that she wanted things to be better.  She also recognised that there was something she could do differently in herself that would shine a light on how to approach her relationship with Emily.  So, with Stacey, we set up a scenario between her and Emily.  This was the second step: mustering the courage to examine the situation.  As we began the re-enactment of the scenario, there was a moment when I directed Stacey to reverse roles with Emily.  That is, she physically sat in Emily’s chair and adopted Emily’s role.  For a moment, Stacey gave up herself and behaved as if she was Emily.  This was the third step: giving up herself and becoming the other.  There was no acting involved;  she was being Emily. When she reversed roles and returned to her primary self, she looked at me and quietly said, “It’s gone.”  When I asked her what she meant, she said that she longer viewed Emily as a “bad egg”.  She became quite reflective at this point and I could see that she had had a sea-change in her attitude towards Emily.  Some weeks later, at a subsequent session, I asked her how she was going with Emily and for a moment, she had to pause to recollect that she had had some issues with her, then said, “Oh, it’s fine now.”  She had worked out, from her own creativity, how she could relate to Emily differently, having had the experience of being Emily.  This, again, was no thought experiment.  Stacey had immersed herself in the role of Emily, giving up her own values and beliefs, knowing that for the purposes of learning something new, she could safely give herself up momentarily and then to return to being herself, her awareness expanded.

This interpersonal process of role reversal facilitates a deep understanding of others that we struggle to achieve via a cognitive thought experiment.  Once known, it cannot be unknown.  It reveals the bigger picture (the wider system) to us in ways an intellectual exercise cannot.  Once seen, it cannot be unseen.  Once developed, the ability to role reverse also cannot be faked.  It is a whole body capability which takes us beyond empathy.

Developing the ability to role reverse helps to free us to truly serve others; not as “dry” acts of duty, but as genuine service.  How much easier it is to be the kind of leader that people need us to be when we are doing it out of an act of our will, not out of obligation.  How much more effective we are as customer service officers if our default setting is applying our abilities to really “getting” the person we are dealing with.  How much more satisfying it is as a salesperson to engage with another and know intimately what they are looking for.

Understanding others at work is not discretionary.

To my mind, role reversal is not a “tool”; it is not used selectively.  It is something which is integrated into who we are and how we express ourselves in relation to others around us.  It colours all our interactions and is not a thing to be switched on and off as it suits us.  Even rhesus monkeys operate empathically.  In an experiment, they were taught to pull a chain to obtain food.  When they were shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time they pulled the chain, they stopped pulling it.  One monkey went without food for 12 days.  I wonder what Milgram would say about that?

What do you say about that?

23 thoughts on “Beyond empathy

  1. Hi John
    Another thought provoking article on one of my favorite topics – empathy.

    This whole idea of going beyond empathy is fascinating. I recall how impressed I was when I first saw the quote from the Dalai Lama – compassion is my only religion. Empathy opens the door to compassion.

    Your example of Stacey illustrates this. I have experienced this as well working with others in these role reversals – they can have real power to shift hardened beliefs and literally change perception and experience.

    In writing recently about some of the latest findings on compassion, I learned that we are literally switching off our natural channels of empathy and compassion when we switch on anxiety, fear, anger, etc. They act as blocks to our natural states. In light of these findings, we need to revisit Milgram and Co. whose research have served to reinforce our beliefs about the nature of human nature for too long.

    I love the term you use – once seen, it cannot be unseen. i suspect that’s why the unconscious mind tries so hard to keep us blind. labels, terms like “bad eggs,” “rotten apples” and “problem employees” etc all keep the door closed as well.

    Thanks for contributing to the “growing tide of evidence that empathy is a core skill for the modern workplace.” It is urgently needed.


    1. Thanks once again for adding in Louise. It’s a huge topic, of urgent need of attention in the business world (the whole world, in fact) so I’m glad you write copiously on the topic. Milgram’s experiments are worth much serious thought. I look at what is happening on the streets of Europe, for example, and wonder how on Earth the EU got the Nobel Peace Prize in light of the brutality we are witnessing against its own citizens. One of many examples of the “powerful” turning off compassion and understanding. Everything is connected to everything else, of course and there is a link, I believe, between this short-circuiting of compassion and our woefully underdeveloped abilities to embrace volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. These make up the landscape we are navigating and unless we develop greater creativity and spontaneity in our lives in order to meet these wholeheartedly, our primitive brains will continue to warm up to fear and anxiety.


  2. I believe the content and focus of this (wonderful) article points to a leading cause of the paucity of leadership in all realms of life. Referencing Joseph Campbell, it is about being and becoming–we must be (human) before we can become (human). Until we become fully human we can’t really help others do the same.

    1. Hear, hear! I still marvel when I hear people say that work is no place to bring yourself, that stuff is for your personal life. How can we leave ourselves at the door?

  3. Fantastic

    Another fascinating article, to which I can’t help but think of the inevitable change within the hierarchy as old be leafs (show no weakness) or potentially an inner battle with ones self.
    In showing (empathy) steers them more towards stereo type peers rather than a remembrance of inner kindness and thoughtfulness that they may have within,as I truly believe that there is good in all of us, obviously on different levels but to give in to the darker side of someone’s nature without throwing an emphatic kind remark about them, but to them, would be allowing my role as a Christian to be put into question and without the seed of change being planted I can’t help but feel for others.

    I’d like to thank you again John for your part in compelling me to (not one of my strong points) but to read, read in the knowledge of the education and a deeper understanding that you always provide.

    Once again Thank you

    Take care


  4. Reblogged this on Optimizing Healing Healthcare and commented:
    John Wenger writes a compelling article about the importance of moving beyond empathy — “standing in each other’s shoes” — through role-reversal. Empathy is not only a core leadership competency but an ability required for healthy relationships in every dimension of one’s life. Seeing through another’s eyes, getting into (not under) some else’s skin, and walking in another’s shoes is essential if we are to truly optimize healing healthcare and the patient experience. I hope that you will enjoy Wenger’s blog, especially as many around the world call to mind the day when God became flesh, fully embracing our humanity to see and live like us in every way. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

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