Monthly Archives: April 2016

Empathy Part 2: Learning from Barack, Brené and Rats!

The Empathy Deficit

As humans we suffer from an empathy deficit, according to Barack Obama. For the last decade, he has given some 60 speeches, writings and interviews on the importance of empathy. This photo shows Obama consoling a victim of Hurricane Sandy some years ago, and his empathy seems very genuine.


What does Obama say about empathy? “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town…… When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”

Empathy and Vulnerability

What is the best way to ease someone’s pain and suffering? It is to demonstrate genuine empathy for them. In a wonderful animation, Brené Brown states that empathy requires us to internalise the feelings of another. “What makes things better is connection.” She states that we can only create an empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.

Some 22 million people have seen Brené’s video, The Power of Vulnerability. “In our culture,” she teaches, “we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.” Brené states that if we can drop the armour that protects us from feeling vulnerable, we open ourselves to the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives. She dispels the myth that vulnerability is weakness and reveals that it is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage.

Empathy and Rats!

As humans we’re surely better than the creatures used in scientific experiments as a precursor for testing something new on humans – rats! Sorry, but the research says otherwise. In 2011, researchers at the University of Chicago conducted an experiment to determine whether a rat would release another rat from a cage without getting a reward. The answer was yes. “The rats learned intentionally and quickly after some sessions to open the restrainer and release the caged rats.” They also repeated this behaviour even when denied the reward of reunion. Even more remarkably, when the rats were presented with two cages, one containing a rat, the other chocolate, they would choose to open both cages and share the chocolate. The researchers reached the inescapable conclusion that the rats were displaying empathy!

My inescapable conclusion is that we can learn from Barack, Brené, rats and each other on the importance of empathy in our everyday lives. I suggest you ask yourself: How empathic am I? Do I suffer from an empathy deficit? And to what extent do I hide or appropriately reveal my vulnerability?

Narayan van de Graaff

Empathy Part One: Waddamana, Children and the Workplace

Empathy in Waddamana


Why is empathy important? I recently returned from a men’s retreat in the centre of Tasmania, where 64 men spent three days together. Many commented that the retreat was one of the most profound and transforming experiences of their lives. Why? A major reason was the significant empathy shown by the men for each other, as we shared our deeper feelings, opened up to our own emotional wounds as well as ‘positive’ emotions, and were very present to each other. In fact, the theme of the retreat was ‘Cultivating Presence.’

One definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. How was this demonstrated during the retreat? Men were able to speak openly without being interrupted, and encouraged to not ‘rescue’, interpret or try to solve other’s problems for them. There was a high focus on active listening, which is such a key component of empathy. Active listening involves quietening our own minds, so we can fully focus on what the other person is communicating, both verbally and non-verbally. There were no external distractions – the three days enabled men to open up and share in an environment of trust and acceptance.

Empathy in Children


One research study of children showed that over half of the children aged from 13 to 15 months tried to hug, touch or pat another child in distress. Children from 18 to 20 months showed increased pro-social behaviour, through verbal responses or other ways such as bringing a blanket or bandages. Virtually all of the children aged from 23 to 25 months showed concern and helped others, including strangers.

Empathy in the Workplace

It is noteworthy that young children have an innate tendency to demonstrate empathy, yet as adults, so many of us are challenged to do the same. Nevertheless, empathy is very important, both within and outside the workplace. Think of all those life situations in which you need and value support, understanding, empathy from others. There are plenty of them!

I design and deliver a lot of training to councillors and mayors, as well as council management and staff. Councillors have their share of challenges dealing with the public and each other! One councillor asked me, “Can you fake empathy?” I replied that perhaps we can, but remember that around 80% of our communication is non-verbal and people can often see through our attempts to fake attempts to be sincere. I also said, “Why not try to genuinely put yourself in their position, to really try and see it from their point of view. “

I once delivered a workshop to loans officers in a major bank. One of their responsibilities was to foreclose on people who were insolvent/bankrupt. In other words, they were on the point of losing their farm, business, home or other assets. When I discussed the role of empathy, he said, “I don’t care. I have all the power of the bank behind me, and they have none.” I replied, “This may be hard for you, but imagine that you are about to lose all the possessions you’ve strived for over the years. Your dream has turned into a nightmare, and now you’re talking to a loans officer who couldn’t care less. What would that feel like?” His response showed me that I hadn’t really penetrated through to him – his apathy to the needs of others was very palpable.

The Centre for Creative Leadership studied the influence of empathy on a manager’s job performance. Data was analysed from 6,731 managers in 38 countries. Key findings were that empathy is positively related to job performance, and that managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their own managers. Theodore Roosevelt stated that “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is true both in and outside the workplace, and it is certainly true for leaders.

In my next blog, I will talk about the empathy deficit, and learning from Barack, Brené and rats! Stay tuned.

Narayan van de Graaff