Tuesday, July 15, 2008

When Empathy Moves Us to Action - By Daniel Goleman

This great article by Dan Goleman was posted at Sharp Brains.

Hot To Help: When can empathy move us to action?

By Daniel Goleman

We often emphasize the importance of keeping cool in a crisis. But sometimes coolness can give way to detachment and apathy.

We saw a perfect example of this in the response to Hurricane Katrina, whose devastation was amplified enormously by the lackadaisical response from the agencies charged with managing the emergency. As we all witnessed, leaders at the highest levels were weirdly detached, despite the abundant evidence on our TV screens that they needed to snap to action. The victims' pain was exacerbated by such indifference to their suffering. So as we prepare for the next Katrina-like disaster, what can the science of social intelligence—especially research into empathy—teach policy makers and first responders about the best way to handle themselves during such a crisis?

This brings me to psychologist Paul Ekman, an expert on our ability to read and respond to others' emotions. When I recently spoke with Ekman, he discussed three main ways we can empathize with others, understanding their emotions as our own. The differences between these forms of empathy highlight the challenges we face in responding to other people's pain. But they also make clear how the right approach can move us to compassionate action.

The first form is "cognitive empathy," simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking, this kind of empathy can help in, say, a negotiation or in motivating people. A study at the University of Birmingham found, for example, that managers who are good at perspective-taking were able to move workers to give their best efforts.

But cognitive empathy can illustrate the "too cold to care" phenomenon: When people try to understand another person's point of view without internalizing his or her emotions, they can be so detached that they're not motivated to do anything to actually help that person.

Read the rest of this article.

As an added bonus, this link takes you to a series of podcasts Goleman is doing -- all of which are interesting. The podcasts are on the bottom left sidebar.

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