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We often tend to see the same people. This circle of companionship likely varies depending on whether we are at work or home, but we probably see most of the same people each day. The lack of variety in our social and professional bubbles may reduce the empathy we have for others because we are not engaging with people outside of our safe, comfortable norms. We may not meet or speak with people who have different viewpoints, beliefs and passions. How can we help others thrive if we do not understand what they need?
Research studies have found that women tend to be more aware of the emotional state of others compared to men. In the brain, the striatum is thought to handle cognitive empathy. Researchers found a certain genetic variant on chromosome 3 increased cognitive empathy, but only in women who had the genetic change.
Men with the variant did not score higher than control groups. While there is very likely a genetic component to empathy, interpersonal awareness, or the ability to understand what people are feeling or needing, our upbringing and personal experiences also impact these factors.1 It doesn’t mean that people who lack the gene can’t be empathetic, but it might mean they have to work harder and be more aware of how they say and do things.
Fortunately, our brains exhibit plasticity, meaning we do have the capacity to change. No matter our gender, we can still become more empathetic and intuitive about the condition of others if we want to train our brain to think that way. One way to increase empathy is to move beyond our circle or bubble of daily life.
Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.
Most of us have a bubble or circle of people with whom we interact. Many of them may enjoy the same activities we do, or have the same beliefs about religion or politics. These social circles may make us less empathetic because everyone in our sphere lives similarly to ourselves. We don’t really experience extremes when we live in these homogenous circles.
Leaders without empathy don’t really understand what their employees’ lives are like. While giant corporations like Amazon are pushing higher wages, Jeff Bezos makes millions of dollars an hour. On July 20, 2020, he made USD 545 million an hour, or USD 13 billion on that single day.2 The average worker would not make this amount with thousands of years of labour, so it’s hard to imagine the extremely wealthy being empathetic with people who work for them.
Leaders should take a walk in someone else’s shoes every so often. They should visit with their janitors, they should see what happens in the mailroom, and they should know as many people as possible by name. It is easier to be more intuitive about your employees if you know something about them. Taking time to visit and chat and ask questions with those you work with is a worthy endeavour.
Getting outside your circle of norms will help you become more agile as you expand your leadership skills. If you use social media, follow or connect with people who don’t look or think like you. Be open minded and courteous. We all have so much to learn and teach each other, but our lack of empathy so often inhibits this transfer of knowledge and ideas.
Being able to capture what people want isn’t always easy. While we know genetics plays a major role in how empathetic we naturally tend to be, we can improve with practice.
Ask yourself questions about the people around you:
There isn’t any rocket science behind empathy. We all have the capacity to become a neuroleader or a brain-friendly leader, but some people may need to work harder to train their brains to think differently.
We should find the time to talk with others. We should also put away our phones and not mentally write emails or memos when we are visiting with them. Unless we are luckily born into wealth, we typically have modest beginnings. Remembering who we are even when our fortunes rise is important to influence others to follow our visions and dreams.
Can you sense what people want in most situations?
About my Brain Institute
As the About my Brain Institute's President for Asia, Garry’s passion and commitment is to help people and organisations achieve prosperity and fulfilment by integrating leadership and culture development with brain science.
Since the mid 1990s, Garry has worked in a range of sectors and roles, both in Australia and overseas. He has had a wide and exciting variety of roles including; the former bodyguard to the Australian Prime Minister and other world leaders, in which he lead complex and challenging operations. Garry was also a Victoria police officer, Australian federal police agent, specialist law enforcement training instructor & manager.
In addition to his public service roles, he has also been a jackaroo, radio presenter and a TV personality representing Australia as an athlete on Foxtel and Netflix for an international outdoor sports & survival reality TV series. Garry has an active sports life as an Ironman triathlete.
Garry is also a member of Beyond Blue’s Ambassador & Speaker Bureau, where he shares his story of recovery from depression back in 2012. His aim to help people feel supported and take action. He also offers tips to help people understand more about depression.
Today, Garry helps people and teams achieve what he likes to describe as a ‘calmer influence inside the chaos’. Garry is an experienced coach, facilitator, speaker and mentor for executives, professional & elite athletes, developing leaders, small businesses, teams & organisations across various industries and government.