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Empathy – Part 1

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Empathy- it is an interesting word. Although containing only 7 letters, it is packed full of meaning. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “empathy” as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” Or, more explicitly: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this”( ).

To get along in today’s world (much less in any negotiation), “empathy” is a key trait. While one may think that empathy is innate, a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review (July 10, 2015) explains that it is actually a choice. In their article, “Empathy Is Actually a Choice”, Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham discuss “empathy” in various social settings based on different studies.

The first point they make is that we are empathetic to the tragedy of a single person or animal (e.g. an injured puppy) but not to a large catastrophe such as an epidemic, earthquake or even Hurricane Katrina. We may feel other emotions such as sadness or anger, but not empathy.

The second point that these researchers make is more intriguing and directly affects our ability to negotiate. “Recent studies have shown that our empathy is dampened or constrained when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds.” (Id.) In a 2010 study conducted by one of the authors (Michael Inzlicht), the results showed that we tend to be more empathetic for people who are “like us” and less empathetic to those we dislike. For those that are “like us”, our brains “literally share feelings, at the psychological level.” We literally “feel another person’s pain. But, if the person is “not like us”, a different part of our brain responds, causing us to have no emotional reaction at all. ( )

The next point made is even more interesting as it has to do with the “power imbalance” in any negotiation. As we have all learned, “power” is a relational concept defined as “the ability to control resources or access to resources that another wants or needs.” In short, it is “… the ability to get what one wants”. ( ). A “power imbalance” occurs when one person has more power than the other thereby affecting the dynamics between the parties and thus the discussion of issues and their resolution. An imbalance can occur due to a belief system, personality traits, gender/ race, income/assets, status or age, education, knowledge or other factors. (Id.)

The article points out that power imbalances affect our degree of empathy. “Powerful” people tend to have less empathy for those with less power. One of the authors conducted an experiment in which some of the participants were assigned “high power” positions and then asked to do certain things. They found that those assigned to the “high power” positions, were, simply not as empathetic as were those assigned to either neutral or low power positions in the experiments. ( )

As negotiations are frequently about putting oneself in the shoes of another, or looking at the situation from the other person’s perspective, these findings do not bode well for having successful negotiations and reaching resolutions.

Given these findings- is there any hope for the future of “empathy”? Yes! The authors conclude by pointing out that the amount or degree of “empathy” we possess is not fixed and unalterable. Rather, it is a trait that we can change; a trait we can learn and improve upon within ourselves, and as the title of the article suggests, a choice that we can make! Or, to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1)

But… how do we “learn” empathy? That question will be answered in next week’s blog. Stay tuned!

… Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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