As a professional, as a leader, even as a brand, ask yourself this critical question: are you empathetic? Do you have the genuine ability to “understand and share the feelings of another”?
More research is showing us the power of empathy, as it can be used as the tissue that connects and deepens relationships. With empathy, you walk in the other’s high heels or sneakers, feel their feelings, experience life from their perspective. Human brains are filled with mirror neurons, which not only react to our subjects of empathy, but also reproduce their emotions.
However, there is a dark side of pure empathy, called pain. Ongoing neuroscientific research tells us that when we feel the stress of others, we take on their pain.
“Empathy is really important for understanding others’ emotions very deeply, but there is a downside of empathy when it comes to the suffering of others,” says Olga Klimecki, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. “When we share the suffering of others too much, our negative emotions increase. It carries the danger of an emotional burnout.”
Whereas the first question is, are you empathetic? The second one is, are you compassionate? A recent study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, suggests that we can better cope with others’ negative emotions by strengthening our own skills for compassion, which the researchers define as “feeling concern for another’s suffering and desiring to enhance that individual’s welfare.”
Training in compassion allowed participants who are empathetic to better cope with despair. With more and more evidence, we see that empathy is a gateway into the others’ experiences, but compassion is the arch through which you want to do something to help the other without robbing them of any wise life lessons.
While there is a lot of press about the power of empathy, it only takes you half the way to the point of creativity, of wanting to craft a solution that fits the situation. In pure empathy, due to neuroplasticity, you can get lost in the emotions of others.
Compassion, defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others,” means that you care enough to try and help. Compassion also mitigates against the negativity, allowing our brains to respond in a grounded, positive manner to tough news or hard feedback.
This is great news if you plan on creating or improving a product or service or being a good leader of people, as you can tap this deep reservoir of humanity to create something of value, something useful, and something that fills an unmet need or sets something crooked straight. Likewise, if you are in a management position you can earn trust by being empathetic with your employees.
Empathy creates the bridge, and compassion points out a new path. This new path is what meaningful innovation seeks to be in the market.
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Michael Graber is the cofounder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis.