There is a popular view that empathy is the pathway to becoming emotionally weak. By responding to the emotions and circumstances of others, we risk losing control, sliding into an emotional soup, with the consequence being, an inability to steer and respond to one’s own agenda.
I’m here to present a different understanding.
It’s helpful to think about empathy as a muscle. Everyone has the empathy muscle, without exception. But whether that muscle is developed, used, strengthened, and allowed to be healthy or not, only occurs through choice, and for many of us, also skill development and practice.
We know that strong muscles not only act in service to our own health, but they also can be of use to others.
Let me start with a story.
I was driving home on Boxing Day, nearing the end of a 3 hour journey on wet roads, and only 1 ½ blocks from home, when I hit a sheet ice covered road. This wouldn’t have been quite as dangerous if it hadn’t also been a 4-way intersection on a very steep hill.
Before I could react, the car started tobogganing down hill, through the intersection, sliding sideways, until it came to a full thudding stop against a snow bank.
At the same time, I had also watched as two cars were coming towards me. Both of them began to slide backwards down the hill, in concert with my own slide. One got all the way to the bottom and turned and left, the other, like me, slid sideways into the same large snow bank, just below where I was stuck on the corner.
I didn’t know what to do.
Any attempt to move the car would only mean I’d slide further downhill, directly into the car below me. I couldn’t imagine a tow truck or police car being able to successfully brake on the hill to be able to offer help. I was wondering what my insurance would do if I just abandoned the car, when I heard a noise like shouting, to my left.
Two men were clambering over the snow bank on the other side of the street, arms held wide for balance, as they skated on their boots across the road, catching themselves on my car as they arrived.
“Don’t move,” they said. “We’re going to try and help the other car first”.
I watched as they pushed themselves off the side of my car to slide down to the next vehicle. After some shouted instructions, they spun the large SUV around and sent it back down the way it had come.
My little Honda Fit was more trouble. It took some shoveling and some determination before she would stop just sliding back into the snow bank.
With great kindness, these men coached me on what to do. “Don’t use your gas. Don’t touch your brake. When you’re free, just steer as you slide down the hill. When you get to the bottom, there’s a small patch of pavement, and you can brake then”
They told me they’d been freeing people all day.
With their shouts of encouragement, I was launched at last. I slid, course correcting the wheels as fast as I could, doing my best to stay in the centre of the road, until I hit the safe place where wheels connected once again to pavement. At the bottom of the hill, I beeped my horn three times and then drove the 50 more feet needed to reach the entrance to the back alley to my house.
Empathy, like the action of the men that day, involves a series of small choices. There may not be awareness that a choice is being made. I’m sure for these two men, at some level, they believed they only had one choice. But the truth is, they did. Empathy does not exist without choice.
A choice was made by the driver who successfully slid all the way down the hill to the safe bare spot of pavement. Perhaps it was an empathic choice also – I don’t know their circumstance. But the action taken in that moment, in full view of the plight of two stuck cars, was to drive away.
The choice made by the two men was to exercise both their empathy muscle and literal muscles to free cars trapped by an icy hell. What else could they have done? It would have been rational to say, “it’s the city’s responsibility to salt and sand the streets.” Or, “let the police sort it out.” Or “call the Automobile Association.” Or, “It’s the driver’s fault for choosing this route”. Or “it isn’t safe for us to be pushing cars – what if we fall, or we make the situation worse?”
They had many choices.
Instead, multiple times that day they left the warmth and comfort of their home whenever someone needed them. They’d put on their coats and boots, confront treacherous icy conditions, lean in and use their muscles to push trapped vehicles back onto the road, while also reassuring scared, angry, frustrated drivers.
If they hadn’t made this choice, the reality would still have been: I was a woman, alone in her car, unable to move, with a problem to solve, and they would have merely been witnesses to that. No more, no less. So, they had other choices. We always do.
And here’s the other thing about empathy.
What these men had done for me was pure gift.
Empathy is a choice that we make that is in fact a gift. To choose to care about another takes a willingness to reach out, to use one’s courage and skills and self, and put it in the service of another, no matter how briefly. In return, there is also a moment where this capacity in us for inter-connectedness, opens a neural pathway that I believe is connected to joy.
We are not always rescuing others, or even able to save them. That’s not what empathy necessarily does. But in empathy, we take a measure of the situation. We momentarily, take on the perspective of how life is for that other person (or people) and then, we make a choice to care about that. Caring is what informs the action and in making that action, we are joining with another in an act that says, you matter.
Arriving in my parking spot behind my house that day, I sobbed with relief. But I also cried from a deep place of gratitude for the kindness and selfless help given to me.
We cannot earn or command empathy. It’s a gift that one person makes to another.
It says, in large ways and small, you matter.
Empathy is the choice that lies inside each of us to give, and the gift that we need to receive from others. It makes everything work.
Empathy at work, is my life’s work. The focus of this blog is in the laboratory of the workplace and work. I have much more to say. And to learn. I look forward to your stories, thoughts and observations in the comments below.