Empathy. Webster’s Dictionary describes it as “the projection of one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better.”
I saw a list of qualities entrepreneurs lack last week in the Harvard Business Review. Right at the top was empathy. Entrepreneurs are busy people and it is easy to see how empathy might be treated as a non-priority. This is bad business. However, entrepreneurs are not alone in not making time for this ineffable business value. I think American society itself is increasingly weak in this human quality. The dearth of empathy seems increasingly to be part and parcel of our rush, rush societal and business culture.
Those who follow this blog know my consistent and ongoing leitmotif of alarm over some of the unheralded and dangerous hidden costs of technology. Miraculous technologies may well be slowly damaging our compassion and ability to relate in exact proportion to our advancing connectedness to universal knowledge. Like a frog in slowly boiling water who doesn’t realized he is being cooked till he is cooked. We are subtly, but constantly, succumbing to a world of superficiality and iDistraction. Indeed, technology, which celebrates connectedness, is not created for anything but a conscious retreat from the inefficiency and annoyance of real human contact. Our technology is increasingly a sort of Cliffs Notes for meaningful human interactions.
Furthermore, while we can choose to drink from an open fire hose of cyber knowledge, many folks I know use technology to only limit their connections to those media that confirm their ongoing prejudices. Conservatives follow conservative channels, internet sites, and movies. Liberals do the same. In such a world, how is it possible to discern nuanced truth and grow into new thoughts and universal solutions?
“Individuals can select from a vast cyber-sea of media and utterly saturate their information space exclusively with information sources that reinforce existing world views. Each of us can create our own personal media walled garden that surrounds us with comforting, confirming information, and utterly shuts out anything that conflicts with our world view. This is social dynamite, for shared knowledge and information is the glue that holds civil society together. It is the stuff that caused people to change their opinions and to empathize with others [in the past].” (Farewell Media, it’s a Media Age)
This new media efficiency breeds a sort of narcissism. I particularly worry about my young daughter’s generation that seems to be in thrall to the cheap grace of Facebook conformity, seeking social media confirmation. “Look at me. Love me. Want me. Friend me.” This is an emotional prostitution that confirms peer conformity and ersatz connection. It is lazy. And it is also prophylactic to real empathy and growth.
As part of this not so brave new world, this navel-gazing is habitualized and institutionalized. It is all too easy to not make the effort to listen for the new, for anything that truly challenges our comfort level or opens paths of doubt and mutual vulnerability.
Rich Karlgaard, in this month’s Forbe’s Magazine (6/23/13, p. 38), quotes Leon Wieseltier‘s commencement speech at this year’s Brandeis graduation ceremony. Weiseltier says, “For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology and, happily, even giddily, governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience.”
People are inconvenient. (French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said famously, “Hell is other people.”) Empathy requires time, attention, and spiritual generosity. Technology may celebrate connectedness, but it actually encourages a waning of deep human connection.
It takes work to really connect. Emails and, even better, texting, allow us to avoid the emotional effort and risk of real human contact. We are using technology to create efficiency, to save time. But the saved time is increasingly bereft of richness, intimacy, and depth.
How do you serve a client or a customer well without listening for the nuance of his needs? Empathy is the essential business skill that allows this to happen.
Ernest Hemingway said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” Yes. Thank you, Ernest.