Gandhi's Neurons: The Practice of Empathy

“If there is any one secret of success,” said Henry Ford, “it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things fro
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
February 03, 2010

“If there is any one secret of success,” said Henry Ford, “it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own.” This is empathy. Not an easy undertaking, even though scientists have now proven that we are indeed wired for empathy. In this fascinating video by Nova Science, we see how mirror neurons, also dubbed Gandhi’s neurons, act as a “neurological Wi-Fi” to help us connect with other people’s feelings.

Almost one hundred years after Henry Ford’s pronouncement, Dave Patnaik, in Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy shows how a variety of global successful organizations, from Nike to Harley Davidson, benefit from integrating empathy for the consumer as an integral part of their culture.

Empathy is our ability to recognize and identify with the concerns other people have. In short, it is our capacity to care for others besides ourselves. Not only does the ability to empathize make us more successful in our professional and personal lives, but it is also the decent thing to do. It’s the path of the mensch.

With our overloaded psyche and our fast-paced lives, our empathy skills can become corroded. How do we practice empathy? Here are a few pointers:

  1. Don’t Take for Granted the Most Important People in Your Life. Is your unwavering focus on the finish line causing you to unintentionally neglect your family’s emotional needs? If so, you might derive inspiration from the poignant words of Brian G. Dyson, a former CEO of Coca-Cola:
    “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them-work, family, health, friends, and spirit-and you are keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls-family, health, friends, and spirit-are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”
  2. Understand this Universal Human Fear. A fundamental fear experienced by most is the hidden fear of not measuring up. Recognize this and do your part to genuinely make those in your circle of influence feel that they are enough. It’s a powerful act of interpersonal philanthropy.
  3. Cultivate an Executive Presence. Much has been written about what executive presence is but one thing is certain: those who possess it have “social generosity.” We invariably walk away from them feeling energized and better about ourselves. This is because they have empathy, the quality that makes them sense our need to feel important. They see us not as we are, but as who we could become. Simply put, they care about how we feel. What a wonderful gift it is, to be able to bestow this on those we encounter. One could argue that it is indeed impossible to have executive presence without empathy because a major requirement for executive presence is the ability to connect with others.
  4. Stop Negative Listening Habits. Adele Lynn isolated six negative listening habits, including the Rebuttal Maker (listening long enough to formulate his rebuttal), the Advice Giver (jumping too quickly to give unsolicited advice), the Interrupter (more anxious to speak his words than to listen), the Logical Listener (rarely asking about the underlying feelings or emotions attached to a message), the Happy Hooker (using the speaker’s words only as a way to get to his own message: “That’s nothing, let me tell you what happened to me”), and perhaps the worst of all, the Faker (pretending to listen). Do you inadvertently fall into any of these poor listening habits? Self-awareness precedes self-management. Making someone feel that they are truly listened to is the most foundational aspect of empathy.
  5. Beware of the Pygmalion Effect. How you persistently view someone that you closely interact with can have an effect on how they perform—a self-fulfilling prophecy. People are very good at sensing how we view them. We translate this through a multitude of micro gestures: frequently checking email while they talk to us, picking up the phone when they enter our office, or looking away when they speak at meetings. All of these seemingly insignificant gestures are posters with a clear message: you are not important. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment and try to experience what that must feel like. Developing empathy involves putting our foot on the brake for a moment to ponder such issues. Our First Nations people have a beautiful saying for empathy—it is: “Walk a mile in my moccasins.”

Empathy helps us forge positive connections with others. It’s a state of mind and a way of being that act as a catalyst to help us create positive communities for the greater good.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the President of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., Clarion Enterprises Ltd. a firm that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership and presentation skills training. Her latest book, The Leader as a Mensch, explains how you can become the kind of person others want to follow.

President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.