Don’t Become Apathetic Toward Empathy

By Larry Kay

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted the following on Twitter: “Leading with empathy” – explain please…”[1] Since then, I have observed numerous discussions about empathy. To be honest, empathy is not a strength of mine, which is why I chose to research and write about it. I learned there are clearly limits to empathy because it is impossible to know exactly what someone else is thinking or feeling. However, recent events demonstrate we could all benefit from a discussion about the meaning of empathy, the practice of empathy, and the involuntary nature of empathy, lest we risk it becoming another buzzword.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”[2]

Maya Angelou

What is empathy?

In 2006, amid the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army codified empathy in doctrine under the character portion of the leadership requirements model.[3] According to ADP 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession, empathy is a leader’s ability to “genuinely relate to another person’s situation, motives, or feelings…allowing the leader to anticipate what others are experiencing and feeling and gives insight to how decisions or actions affect them.”[4] Going further, FM 6-22 states the empathetic standard for leaders is that they “Demonstrate an understanding of another person’s point of view. Identifies with others’ feelings and emotions. Displays a desire to care for Soldiers, Army Civilians, and others.”[5] The FM adds, “Empathy can allow leaders to understand how their actions will make others feel and react. Empathy can help leaders understand those who they deal with, including other Soldiers, Army Civilians, local populace, and even enemy forces. Being able to see from another’s viewpoint enables a leader to understand those around them better.”[6] Currently, only three of the three-hundred and twenty pages that comprise ADP 6-22 and FM 6-22 address empathy. In other words, the Army does not provide a detailed explanation of an incredibly complex human condition that can help us understand ourselves and others better.

According to some philosophers, there are approximately eight ways a person typically acquires knowledge: sense perception, language, reason, emotion, intuition, memory, faith, and imagination.[7] Empathy falls under imagination, because empathy requires the use of imagination as a way to gain knowledge of other people. Since it is impossible to possess a clear and direct knowledge of other people’s inner lives, empathizing requires a person to imaginatively project themselves into another person’s situation and understand what circumstances are like from their point of view.[8] In everyday use, empathy is often confused with sympathy and compassion, but they are not the same thing. You can, for example, contrast the difference in feelings you have when you learn a criminal stole a television for profit versus the one who stole some bread to feed their family. The point is that you can empathize with the plight of a criminal with or without feeling sympathy for them or condoning their behavior.[9]

Empathy is a complex concept. Psychological studies indicate that empathy has both genetic and learned or conditioned elements which are affected by parenting, schools, community, environment, and culture.[10] Psychologists also suggest empathy occurs on a spectrum. On one extreme, some people find it very hard to relate to others and tend to avoid social interactions – imagine Sherlock Holmes.[11] On the other extreme, we find people who suffer from intense empathy and experience other people’s feelings so deeply that they are overwhelmed by them – imagine Mantis from the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird. Most of us lie somewhere in the middle of the empathy spectrum but we have likely all encountered someone who is on one of the extreme ends.

Author and consultant Justin Bariso identifies three types of empathy: cognitive empathy (CE), emotional empathy (EE), and compassionate empathy, also known as empathic concern (EC).[12] Cognitive empathy enables someone to think about what the world is like from someone else’s perspective or point of view.[13] Emotional empathy, also known as affective empathy, is the ability to share the feelings of another person.[14] Finally, empathic concern provokes someone to take action on behalf of the feeling of others, suggesting that empathy involves a second way of knowing: emotion. 

Empathy helps you understand other people and yourself better. To be self-conscious is to be aware of yourself as an object of perception by other people. However, to develop self-knowledge you need to be aware that others may see you quite differently from the way you see yourself.[16] This awareness requires being able to imagine how you look and sound to other people. For example, if you see yourself as a professional officer but your subordinates consider you a toxic leader, their assessment of you may matter as much if not more than your own. In fact, online forums and message boards have aided some in this endeavor. Reddit, has a message board entitled, “AITA,” which stands for “am I the asshole,” in which strangers anonymously ask others if their behavior is acceptable given a certain set of conditions. In the Army, the Commander Assessment Program provides an opportunity for leaders at the field grade level and above to receive feedback from peers and subordinates. External feedback is an important tool to gauge whether the way you see yourself aligns with the way others see you. 

Given that empathy is influenced by biology, upbringing, and culture, we must be aware of the potential limitations some people experience in demonstrating empathy. Various agencies have developed tests to evaluate where someone might fall on the scale. One such test, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) is a multidimensional approach prompting participants with various questions to evaluate areas such as: perspective taking, fantasy, empathic concern, and personal distress.[17] Another widely used evaluation is the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which attempts to describe how some perceive the world and make decisions.[18] Some might find the irony of coldly evaluating empathy with a standardized test, but how else are we to determine who is and is not empathetic? Should we leave it to their word or our intuition? Perhaps.

Empathy and language

“The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”

          George Bernard Shaw

Empathy is required to better understand what someone intends to communicate, indicating that there is a relationship between empathy and a third way of knowing: language. Empathy plays a critical role in writing, speaking, and teaching, where the person communicating requires an understanding of the audience.[19] Lacking imagination, failing, and in some cases, refusing to see how others perceive your message may cause you to adopt the wrong tone communicate ideas confounding to one’s audience, or continue to talk despite having lost the attention of your audience. LTC Joe Byerly recently described this awareness of your audience as “briefing empathy” in his post entitled We All Need to have a Little More Briefing Empathy. Some suffer from what is known as the curse of knowledge. They know a great deal about their subject, but they are unable to explain it to their subordinates because they have forgotten what it is like to be a novice or they speak of something of which others have no understanding.[20]

Interpreting what someone means is not as easy as it appears, especially in cases where the words they select are ambiguous, the meanings of the words unfamiliar, and the context unclear. If we are really committed to becoming empathetic, then we must invoke the idea of pragmatics.[21] Errors in communication often result from confusion between speaker meaning and audience meaning – or what a speaker intends as opposed to what an audience understands. Furthermore, we understand most language by personal and shared context. Personal context consists of all of the memories and experiences (good and bad) that both the speaker and audience have. The environment or circumstances (spatial and temporal) within which the speaker and listener find themselves is the shared context. 

 As a result, empathy requires the speaker and audience to exercise a cooperative principle. When speakers are ambiguous in their message, the audience should look for the most likely intended meaning of what is said, given the shared context, rather than ascribing the worst possible interpretation. Both the speaker and the audience bear some responsibility in achieving a mutual understanding. An initial goal of the “This Is My Squad Initiative (TIMS) should be centered around learning how to communicate with and understand each other cooperatively.

Training empathy

Research indicates if you struggle with empathy, it’s not too late to develop your emotional intelligence.  Some philosophers believe that fiction is an effective way of developing moral imagination and empathy. Immersing oneself in a novel can act as a ‘flight simulator for the heart and mind,’ helping you see the world through the eyes of the characters, and by extension the author, and reminding you that there are other perspectives than just your own.[22] Stories and narratives can convey illustratively with earnestness the circumstances that you may not have experienced in your own life. Stories like Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Same Kinda Different as Me by Lynn Vincent, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow can allow you to live vicariously through others whose lives were marred with life’s struggles. However, novels certainly have limits. Insincere attempts at empathy can lead to resentment. Therefore, one should empathize when possible and sympathize when necessary. 

Alternatively, reading fiction can perpetuate stereotypes and encourage schadenfreude – or taking pleasure in others’ suffering. Too much fiction can lead to disinterest as real-life challenges may become just another story they have heard.[23] Certain circles in social media are full of people who find perverse amusement in others’ faults and errors, both big and small, from repulsive comments to risqué dance videos on TikTok. If you begin to get burnt out from fiction, you can use smaller and routine ways to train empathy. Having candid discussions with Soldiers about their upbringing and experiences can expose leaders to their Soldiers’ struggles, comparing and contrasting them with their own, to enable understanding and communication. Mindfulness is another practice that can help Soldiers focus their attention on themselves and others. Ultimately, little behaviors transform greater attitudes.

 

“Eloquence may strike the ear, and the language of sorrow draw forth the tear of compassion, but nothing can reach the heart that is steeled with prejudice.”[24]

          Thomas Paine

In 2014, General Paul LaCamera, then the commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division, reminded leaders  “no amount of training can undo eighteen years at the dinner table.”[25] Simply stated, if half of empathy results from genetics and the other half results from upbringing, than we are limited to how much empathy we can develop in our short time in the military. First, we have to understand what empathy is and recognize that there is more to it than the display of emotion in the face of emotional circumstances. This understanding alone may necessitate a more expansive discussion of the idea in our doctrine. Second, we need to understand ourselves better, and there are tests and methods to evaluate one’s level of empathy. Then, we need to understand the natural limitations of ourselves and others, and recognize that there has to be a willingness on the part of the person to improve their emotional intelligence. For those who want to increase their empathy, engaging the imagination through novels and fictions is a method to be exercised privately, while having candid, judgement-free discussions with Soldiers about their experiences is a tool leaders can use publicly. Ultimately, to care sufficiently for the perspective of others requires that we take a hard look at ourselves to determine how we can embed empathy in our actions, on- and off-duty, publicly and in private.

Major Larry Kay is an Infantry Officer currently assigned to 1st Infantry Division. Major Kay holds degrees from the University of Florida and Central Michigan University. Major Kay is also a graduate of the US Army Command and General Staff College and the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is the author of “A New Postmodern Condition: Why Disinformation Has Become So Effective,” “Making Sense of the Senseless: War in The Postmodern Era,” “Organizing for Chaos: COVID, Complexity, and Command,” and “Putting the Enemy Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Multi-Domain Operations in Practice.”  Follow him on Twitter @larrykay954.

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