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Empathy / Empathic Listening Mental Model: Executive Summary
If you only have three minutes, this introductory section will get you up to speed on the empathy mental model.
The concept in one quote:If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own. - Dale Carnegie Click To Tweet
The concept of empathy, briefly: Empathy is a profoundly misunderstood concept: it doesn’t require being warm and fuzzy, nor does it require condoning others’ undesirable actions. Rather, empathy is a learnable skillthat involves stepping outside our own schema and into someone else’s shoes, to better help them – and us – solve tough problems.
Key takeaways/applications: A substantial body of research demonstrates that empathy can be a competitive advantage for everyone from retailers to negotiators to public health officials; improving our empathic listening capabilities can yield huge payoffs in both our professional and personal lives – and make the world a better place in the process.
Three brief examples of empathy:
What’s it like to be honest, and say all the things that you know that you’re thinking? Many business leaders – especially men – think empathy is weakness.
They’re wrong. Empathy represents profound intellectual flexibility and strength of character.
“Understanding the other side’s thinking is not simply a useful activity… their thinking is the problem. Conflict lies not in objective reality, but in people’s heads. Fears, even if ill-founded, are real fears and need to be dealt with. Hopes, even if unrealistic, may cause a war…
The ability to see the situation as the other side sees it, as difficult as it may be, is one of the most important skills a negotiator can possess.”
Of course, it’s not only modern negotiators that recognize the power of empathy. If not for empathy, America might never have gotten the Constitution done. How did onlookers describe Benjamin Franklin’s presence at the Constitutional Convention? As described in Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin – An American Life” (which really isn’t worth reading – see BfAAL review + notes):
More important than his specific ideas was his tone of moderation and conciliation. His speech, with its openness to new ideas and absence of one-sided advocacy, provided time for tempers to cool, and his call for creative compromises had an effect.
The seven most powerful words in the English language are: “I’m sorry, and it won’t happen again.” Many victims of medical errors aren’t necessarily looking for big paydays – in Tavris/Aronson’s “ Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” ( MwM review + notes), the psychologist couple notes that studies of hospitals find that admissions of guilt and implementation of preventative measures make patients less likely to sue. Of course, if you lawyer up before taking the time to use empathy and figure out what the patients actually want, nobody’s better off.
(Except the lawyers. The lawyers are better off.)
Rust-busting. How did Dan Dunmire beat back an entrenched culture of apathy towards corrosion at the DoD, saving millions of taxpayer dollars in the process? Jonathan Waldman’s “ Rust: The Longest War” ( Rust review + notes) – one of the best-written nonfiction books I’ve ever encountered – notes that Dunmire had to have a lot of empathy to understand the motivations and constraints of DoD personnel, so he could design the appropriate structural problem solvingsolutions. As Waldman explains:
“Actually, it’s dealing with human beings that requires even more patience than dealing with aircraft and ships and bases. Physics, [Dunmire] calls black and white.
People he calls “quasi scientific at best.” They have more momentum than a carrier and require as much space for making turns.”
If this sounds interesting/applicable in your life, keep reading for unexpected applications and a deeper understanding of how this interacts with other mental models in the latticework.
However, if this doesn’t sound like something you need to learn right now, no worries! There’s plenty of other content on Poor Ash’s Almanack that might suit your needs. Instead, consider checking out our learning journeys, our discussion of the loss aversion, Bayesian reasoning, or scientific thinking mental models, or our reviews of great books like “ Deadly Choices” (VAX reviews + notes), “ Deep Survival” ( DpSv review + notes), or “ The Great A&P” ( GAP review + notes).
A Deeper Look: What Empathy Is, What Empathy Is Not
Let’s clear something up.
Say “empathy,” and what many guys hear is the “e-word.” They regress back to a third-grade state of mind in which girls had cooties and hugs and kisses were for little kids. Yuck. Many guys still haven’t matured past third grade – they still have a pointless, maladaptive fantasy of being macho manly-men – and macho manly-men don’t do that stuff.
Warm-fuzziness isn’t empathy, though. Warm-fuzziness can be great, and warm-fuzziness often goes along with empathy – but you don’t need warm-fuzziness to do empathy.
What is the e-word, then? Here’s a formal definition I made up that’s similar to those you’ll find in many books covering the topic.
Empathy: learning to see the world from another person’s point of view, without necessarily condoning or accepting that point of view, for the purpose of being better able to solve their problems – or your own.
Let’s dive right in to the extreme example. Could you empathize with Nazi baby-killers?
I hate Nazi baby-killers. I hope you do too. Nazi baby-killers are pure, unadulterated evil. If a Nazi baby-killer happened to walk by me as I’m typing this, I’d introduce them to the business end of my can of bear mace (for starters) and make sure they didn’t kill any more babies.
But let’s go back to our definition.
Nowhere in the meaning of empathy does it say that we have to condone someone else’s actions – just that we have to be able to step into their shoes and understand them.
Why, then, would we want to empathize with murderers? To step into their shoes and understand their actions?
Well, because it benefits us.
Let me explain. It’s tempting, given our natural tendency towards in-group vs. out-group behavior, to separate the world into a nice, neat, clean, tidy framework of a binary nature: there’s “us” (the good guys), and “them” (the bad guys.)
This sort of thinking underlies a lot of political ideology – in fact, as psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson point out in “ Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” ( MwM review + notes), if you tell people a policy was proposed by the political party opposite from their preferences,
“you might as well ask people if they will favor a policy proposed by Osama bin Laden.”
Reality’s, of course, a little bit more complicated than our intuitive (and wrong) “good-guy bad-guy” cops-and-robbers framework. In fact, one historian cites another historian as arguing that:
“Evil that arises out of ordinary thinking and is committed by ordinary people is the norm, not the exception.”
If that’s true, then it’s important for us to understand circumstances in which ordinary people could find themselves making truly awful, twisted, demented, inexcusable, irreparably horrific decisions.
And that’s exactly what historian Christopher Browning does in “ Ordinary Men” ( OrdM review + notes) – a book which I originally read in high school, in a dual-credit class at a local community college. To say the book changed the way I think about the world would be an understatement.
Browning analyzes how a group of working-class, ordinary Joe, non-Nazi-inculcated men became Holocaust murder machines. He notes, in fact, that this group of men – Reserve Police Battalion 101 – was possible the least likely sample size of German men to become murderers.
And yet become literal baby-killers they did. One man even managed to convince himself he was doing Jewish children a favor by ending their lives, because they wouldn’t be able to live without their parents. He subsequently only shot children.
Again, the important point is that until the events described in the book, these guys weren’t serial killers or sociopaths. They were perfectly normal men, with families, jobs, kids, hopes, and dreams – just like the rest of us. They weren’t born anti-Semites.
Browning doesn’t forgive the men of 101 for their hideous crimes, but he doesn’t demonize them either: he tries to understand how he, in the same situation, might have chosen to do the same. As Browning concludes in “ Ordinary Men” ( OrdM review + notes):
“If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”
By empathizing with these men – that is to say, stepping into their shoes, viewing the world from their perspective, and understanding the psychological dynamics that led them to make the wrong choices in the circumstances they found themselves in, without whatsoever condoning or accepting their horrific actions – we can hopefully prevent ourselves from going down a similar road of self-justification – even if it’s in far less dire circumstances – and try to prevent future horrors like those.
It’s a tendency scientific research demonstrates we’re all prone to, explored by the earlier-referenced “ Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” – MwM review + notes – and it’s one empathy can help prevent.
Megan McArdle explores this phenomenally in “ The Up Side of Down” ( UpD review + notes). Her review of an innovative Hawaiian parole system – HOPE – started by Judge Alm are some of my favorite in any book anywhere.
Alm was dealing with a parole system that wasn’t working for anyone: recidivism rates were high, costing criminals their freedom, taxpayers their money, and parole officers / justices time and energy. Alm looked at the world through the eyes of parole officers – as well as criminals – to understand what was causing this recidivism rate.
Drugs were a major factor, as was an overload of parole paperwork, which let some probationers slip through the cracks, leading to problems associated with inconsistent feedback (as I discuss in the feedback mental model). Alm implemented a zero-tolerance drug testing policy with expedited paperwork and modest but guaranteed jail time for offenders – which led to a win-win outcome: lower recidivism rates that benefited both the criminals and society at large.
Of course, Alm’s approach included a lot of other models, like agency – but it all started with being able to understand why people were committing crimes, and how he could help them stop doing that. Never once did he condone their behavior – in fact, he sends them to jail for it, routinely – but everyone’s better off because Alm took the time to practice some empathy.
Empathy x Structural Problem Solving: Empathy In The Real World
Thankfully, most of the time, we don’t have to empathize with baby-killers. We just have to empathize with people whose circumstances are a little different from our own.
Time for some comic relief. Click the picture below to watch a quick, 90-second video on empathic listening:
Okay, let’s be honest, guys: it is about the nail. All your sweaters are snagged, really? I wonder why. But jokes aside, the video drives home an important point: oftentimes, we jump to conclusions about what it is that people need, in our all-knowing arrogance, without actually listening to them to find out what they need.
What are the real-world consequences of this sort of behavior? Two bits from Dr. Atul Gawande’s “ The Checklist Manifesto” ( TCM review + notes) – separated by 70 pages – stand out to me. One of the themes in the book is that checklists are a structural problem solving solution based on empathy – understanding what makes doctors fail to follow procedures, like faulty memory or time-caused stress – and implementing a solution that takes care of those problems.
Gawande, a surgeon himself, had to work through a number of challenges with real-world implementations of the checklists because in their original form, they weren’t empathetic to the needs of doctors in the OR. Sadly, many well-intentioned, perhaps even effective bureaucratically-created solutions simply fail to take into account the needs of actual users – a topic that Don Norman explores in fascinating depth in my second-favorite book, “ The Design of Everyday Things” ( DOET review + notes).
Back to Dr. Gawande – two of his examples highlight the need for empathy when designing products for doctors. The first:
“One of the most common diagnos[is categories in medical computer systems is] “Other.” On a hectic day, when you’re running two hours behind and the people in the waiting room are getting irate, you may not take the time to record the precise diagnostic codes in the database.”
“pallet after pallet of two-hundred-page guideline books [from third-party expert groups…] on malaria prevention, HIV/AIDS treatment, and influenza management, all shrink-wrapped against the gathering dust. […]
At the bedsides of patients in Bangkok and Brazzaville, Boston and Brisbane, little had changed.”
Clearly, that is the wrong way to go about things. In sharp contrast, Gawande thoughtfully displays empathy throughout “ The Checklist Manifesto” ( TCM review + notes), ensuring that he’s putting himself in the shoes of those doctors at patients’ bedsides, designing solutions that help them do the best job of treating their patients.
But how, exactly, do we go about emulating Dr. Gawande? The aforementioned “It’s Not About The Nail” video is actually part of Franklin Covey’s “All Access Pass” organizational learning solution. As I mention in the multidisciplinary rationality mental models, Franklin Covey is Askeladden’s largest portfolio position – and the landmark “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” ( 7H review + notes) by its late founder Stephen Covey was among the most influential books on my own personal development.
Covey notes, in 7 Habits, that we “spend most of our waking hours communicating” and have spent years “learning how to read and write [and…] speak.” On the other hand, “comparatively few people have had any training in listening at all.”
The solution? To practice listening without jumping to conclusions. To really try to understand what the other person is thinking and feeling, and why. To avoid the tendency for “our conversations [to] become collective monologues” where we’re so busy preparing our next response that we don’t even really hear what the other person is saying. (Admit it – we’ve all done that!)
Covey goes on to explain that “when people are really hurting and you really listen with a pure desire to understand, you’ll be amazed how fast they will open up. They want to open up.”
Similar sentiments have been expressed throughout the centuries. The aforementioned ‘ How To Win Friends and Influence People” ( HWFIP review + notes) by Dale Carnegie explores thoroughly – albeit in an occasionally Pollyannaish tone – how impactful it can be (to our own interests, or incentives) to think about the needs of others. We’ll get into this idea in the next section.
There’s plenty of practical advice on empathic listening in “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” – but one other bit from Shawn Achor’s “ The Happiness Advantage” ( THA review + notes) that I’ve always found helpful is “active and constructive.”
In other words, respond with specific and thoughtful feedback – don’t be vague, and certainly don’t respond in a way that bursts people’s bubble.
In Daring Greatly, Brown uses sitting on the same side of the table as both a metaphor and a literal best practice for empathy.
In fact, mirroring Covey’s earlier point about making people feel understood, empathy can literally improve the health of your loved ones.
How much does listening matter? Brown cites research by UT psychologist James Pennebaker, who found that:
“The act of not discussing a traumatic event or confiding it to another person could be more damaging than the actual event.
Conversely, when people shared their stories and experiences, their physical health improved, their doctor’s visits decreased, and they showed significant decreases in their stress hormones.”
Clearly, empathy can be powerful; unfortunately, it’s often a bottleneck for many smart people – either because they don’t think about it, or because they errantly hold the fixed-mindset view that you have it or you don’t.
I’ll leave you with one last example: it’s well known that brilliance and ingenuity built the atom bomb… but did you know that empathy did, too?
Throughout Richard Rhodes’ “ The Making of the Atomic Bomb” ( TMAB review + notes), and elsewhere, Robert J. Oppenheimer – “Oppie” – is referred to as a truly brilliant leader of the Manhattan Project. What set him apart was not just his intellect, but also his unusual empathy – Rhodes quotes physicist Edward Teller as attributing Oppie’s success to:
“[his] successful effort to know about practically everything important invented in the laboratory, and also because of his unusual psychological insight into other people, which, in the company of physicists, was very much the exception.”
Oppie is routinely noted asking about people’s families (Feynman notes Oppie asked after his sick wife), helping to sort out conflicts and make sure the scientists were put in the best position to do their best work, and so on – classic empathy.
One final point here. You remember loss aversion? That bit about how we’re attuned to negatives more than positives? As Shawn Achor explores in “ The Happiness Advantage” ( THA review + notes), and as Tavris/Aronson explore in “ Mistakes were Made (but not by me)” ( MwM review + notes), successful relationships and teams require a ratio of 3:1 positive to negative comments – and ideally, in excess of that, in the range of 5:1 or 6:1.
Someone with empathy will be able to put themselves inside the shoes of the other person and know how much negativity hurts. Stephen Covey discusses the phenomenal concept of an “Emotional Bank Account” in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes): if you start making withdrawals without having made enough deposits, you’re in trouble.
“Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.”
Application / impact: the first and most important step to developing empathy is simply to make an active habit of really listening to other people and trying to understand their schema – or worldview.
Empathy x Incentives: “Get Inside The Head Of The Customer”Jeff, one day you’ll understand it’s harder to be kind than clever. - Jeff Bezos’s grandfather Click To Tweet
In ‘The Everything Store” – TES review + notes, Brad Stone relays a cute story about how 10 year old Jeff one day informed his grandmother that her smoking habit would take nine years off her life. He was right, and she was distraught.
Did Bezos ever learn his grandfather’s lesson? It’s unclear. “ The Everything Store” – and plenty of other material about Amazon – paints Bezos as a brutal, demanding boss. Certainly nobody would describe him as sensitive to employees’ needs, let alone “warm and fuzzy.”
On the other hand, Amazon is notoriously focused on the customer experience; you can email Bezos directly, and if a complaint catches his eye, he forwards it to the appropriate department with a single character in the subject line – “?”
You do not want to be on the receiving end of one of those emails from Bezos, as Stone makes clear. In any event, a study of business books will reveal that it’s clear, throughout the ages, that successful businesses “get inside the head of the customer” (that link will take you to another, longer bit of comic relief.)
For example, Starbucks is today perhaps best known for stupidly intricate drink orders: “hi, I’ll have a triple-pump caramel soy macchiato, 108 degrees with extra foam on top, thanks.” But in its earliest incarnation, Starbucks tried to be a “purist” Italian espresso experience – luckily, Howard Schultz realized pretty quickly, as he explains in “ Pour Your Heart Into It” ( PYH review + notes), that Starbucks wasn’t going to expand beyond much of a niche if they didn’t adapt to the customer.
They’ve continued that trend today: while Schultz (inexplicably) loves horribly burnt, bitter, flavorless dark-roast coffee, many consumers prefer medium-roasted coffee that retains its original flavor rather than tasting like charcoal – and Starbucks meets that need with its Blonde roast. (In case you were wondering, I only patronize third-wave indie coffee shops and usually make my own coffee in a Chemex. I love Schultz’s books, though.)
The single best example of turning empathy into a business model is not Starbucks, however – it’s The Container Store. As cofounder Kip Tindell’s charming “ Uncontainable” ( UCT review + notes) explains, they’ve built a business model on empathy: toward their customers, their employees, and their vendors. You won’t find a better book on the practical benefits – incentives – of empathy.
For The Container Store, empathy is an intangible, difficult-to-replicatecultural competitive advantage that means, despite literally selling products thieves don’t want to steal, they’ve been able to build a successful niche specialty retail business over time.me.
(They haven’t been doing so well lately thanks to a tough retail environment, but that doesn’t take away from what they’ve accomplished historically.)
Tindell notes a few interesting things: first, The Container Store:
“truly love[s] our employees and are committed to caring for their whole being – not just as workers.”
Employees, who practice “Man In The Desert Selling” – that is to say, using empathy to deeply understand customer’s needs and identify the right storage solutions – pass that attitude on to customers:
It’s not uncommon for customers to come into TCS stores for the sole purpose of feeling better by chatting with their happy employees – and, naturally, picking up a few things in the process.
Unlike many businesses – Amazon, certainly, being one – TCS is empathetic toward vendors as well. They know they’re not necessarily going to win on volume relative to, say, Wal-Mart, so they try to find other ways they can help out – such as ordering products in downtimes to smooth out demand, etc.
This turns out to be a win-win approach: vendors deeply trust The Container Store and do things for it they wouldn’t do for other customers.
Finally, outside of a business context, there are practical – and purely selfish – benefits to empathy, too. Shawn Achor notes, in the aforementioned “ The Happiness Advantage” ( THA review + notes), that small acts of deliberate kindness – even as small as paying a few dollars for someone’s toll or coffee – can have meaningful impacts on our own well-being.
Similarly, Laurence Gonzales, in the phenomenal “ Deep Survival” ( DpSv review + notes), observes that in survival situations, displaying empathy – toward fellow survivors, or even a pet snail, if that’s all you can find – can actually help you survive, possibly by creating a sense of agency that reduces amygdala hijacks (see the cognition / intuition / habit / stress mental model).
Application / impact: even if you don’t care about other people, empathy has tangible benefits from a purely self-interested standpoint.
Empathy x Feedback: Why The “Golden Rule” is Bullshit
You remember the “Golden Rule” most of us learned as kids? ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”
Yeah, that’s bullshit, and here’s why.
Remember I mentioned warm and fuzzy? I’m warm and fuzzy. I hug. I cuddle. I ask about people’s dogs, and kids, and emotional well-being. Hermione Granger, in Harry Potter, chides Ron for having the “emotional range of a teaspoon.” Well, I don’t know what the opposite of a teaspoon is – a cauldron, perhaps? – but that’s what I have. A lot of emotional range. Everyone who knows me describes me as, by far, the most empathetic 20somethingyo male they know.
The thing is, though, that I can’t go around treating people the way I’d like to be treated. Because I’m unusually warm and fuzzy, and most people are not. This is not merely a personal concern, but a professional one, in some contexts – one you may have encountered if you’ve ever interacted with someone from another culture, where standard American collegial friendliness might be viewed as unbearably clingy – or offputtingly distant, depending on which culture you’re talking about.
Dr. Judith Beck, in “ Cognitive Behavior Therapy” ( CBT review + notes), discusses this challenge in the context of cognitive behavioral therapy – a utility focused therapy approach that is often more effective than medication for anxiety, depression, and a wide host of other conditions (even insomnia, as discussed in Dr. Mathew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep” –Sleep review + notes).
The process of cognitive behavioral therapy, although I won’t go deep into it here since it’s explored elsewhere on the site, basically amounts to helping patients identify maladaptive beliefs and thought patterns and replace those with more adaptive ones. Naturally, this requires empathy skills, to understand the world from the patient’s point of view.
Beck points out throughout “Cognitive Behavior Therapy,” though, that different patients have different communication tones and styles. Some will want a very warm, engaged therapist, while others might view an overly caring attitude as inappropriate. Similarly, some may be totally fine with you interrupting them to ask clarifying questions, while others might get upset. Finally, some are very compliant with therapists’ instructions, while others will take a more stubborn, what’s-in-it-for-me attitude.
How can you handle this broad range of potential interactions, and be empathetic toward all patient types? Beck explains the answer lies in feedback. Beck recommends paying attention to patients’ emotional reactions, and frequently seeking feedback. If it seems patients are upset, the therapist should simply apologize and adjust their behavior moving forward.
Yet many people don’t do this routinely – I fall prey to it myself, on occasion. Thanks to schemabottlenecks, it’s easy to get trapped in our own worldview, and assume that others would want to be treated the way we would want to be treated.
But that’s not true. So, the Modified Golden Rule:
Treat other people the way they want to be treated.
And, of course, it requires empathic listening to figure out exactly how that is.
Application / impact: treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated.