This is might be counterintuitive but yet true. Trying to empathise with someone can lead to a negative outcome. How?
Here is the story.
Most of the time, we’re trying to understand someone by “guessing” what is on the other person’s mind. This is called “perspective-taking”.
To “guess”, we use our own available and existing knowledge, information and beliefs related to that person or group. That’s where the problem starts.
The information we hold personally is first, not complete, second, often inaccurate. Note that we omit this and usually overestimate our “empathic accuracy” which is how accurately we can infer the thoughts and feelings of another person.
Because it’s not possible to have complete information about everyone’s mind, the less we know about a person, the more our brain automatically feels the gap using external information.
What is this external information? Stereotypes.
“A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” We use stereotypes to reconstruct the other side perspectives and opinion.
As you already guessed, the problem with stereotypes is that they are mostly inaccurate.
So when we use wrong stereotypes, we form opinions about others’ thoughts that are also wrong.
And what form do these wrong opinions take?
It tends to exaggerate our perception of the difference we have with such person or group. The more the difference is perceived, the more distant we feel between us and this particular person or group, the more distrust we have towards them, the less positive collaboration happens.
So what’s with the environment?
Empathy inaccuracy can ruin collaboration
Let’s take a concrete example taken from Nicholas Epley in his book Mindwise (which inspired this article): a conflict about overfishing word stock in North Atlantic.
Classic dilemma: any fisherman would do better catching as many fish as possible but the entire resource would collapse if every fisherman caught as much as possible, thereby making everyone worse-off.
One solution would get each individual to responsibly fish as much as they can while leaving enough to maintain resources.
The problem is fishermen mistakenly believe that other fishermen are more selfish than they actually are. When a fisherman is trying to put himself in another fisherman shoes, he uses this incorrect belief and concludes that the other fisherman will surely not commit to limited fishing quota. It increases distrust and enhances selfishness. Why would I do it if I believe they won’t?
If each fisherman assumes that he can’t trust any of the others, then it’s every man for himself and the eco-system collapses.
In that case, perspective-taking collapses the system the fastest.
It’s not hard to imagine this scenario for Wood Sourcing, Oil Drilling or any other businesses exploiting natural resources.
“Assumption is the mother of all F..k” ups takes it full meaning here.
However, empathy is critical to change in behaviour towards the environment
Empathy is a strong motivator that can provide the will for people to understand and care enough to change their behaviour to collaborate and create solutions for a better world.
Empathy fuels connection and establishes trust which is fundamental for human cooperation.
In his book The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin explains the empathic evolution of the human race and the profound ways it has shaped our development. “Empathise is to civilise, civilise is to empathise.”
The role of empathy has been critical for human development through the ages.
However, we now all face a global challenge where empathy needs to play a big role.
Our human behaviours have been leading to environmental issues from climate change water pollution and biodiversity loss. Everywhere in the world, people are suffering from the impact of these issues. Developing and strengthen empathy is crucial to trigger global behaviour change to move towards more responsible practices on a global scale.
However, to reap the fruits of empathy, it first needs to be accurate.
How to achieve empathy accuracy: the power verbal intelligence
One needs to start by recognizing our very limited availability to guess someone’s mind. This is fundamental. Instead of guessing, we shall put the relational work to gather the right information directly from the other person we want to get the perspectives from. This is called “perspective getting”.
This would have been obvious if we were not naturally overconfident on our guessing ability. How many times have you not asked someone else opinion because you were convinced that you already knew it? How many times were you right? Probably way less than you think.
However, whilst appearing like the best solution, perspective getting is not necessarily an easy task. Getting information from someone can start by asking. However, you can be sure that the information given is correct?
Here are a few tips:
Ask the (right) questions people are able to answer
It’s a challenge for many of us to accurately report on what’s in our mind. Especially when the question starts with “why”. Why are you feeling sick? What did you vote for this person? These types of questions don’t yield accurate data on someone’s mind because the person can’t just answer them. You may consider “What” rather than “why” types of questions.
Repeat to confirm your understanding
We assume too often that our beliefs, attitudes have been communicated clearly. This overconfidence leads to a lot of misunderstanding. We need to be painfully clear. When someone expresses an idea to explain what’s on his mind, make sure to repeat the statement and have him/her confirm your understanding.
Make sure the context is right
Being stressed, under pressure, socially conditioned, feeling judged…all this can lead the person under these conditions to give you inaccurate answers about his/her feelings.
You need to put this person in a context where he/she feels liberty to give an honest answer and you are open to hearing it. The human emotion you create is vital to get accurate data.
If your belief about the other side’s perspective is mistaken, then carefully considering that person’s perspective will only magnify the mistake’s consequence.
Our overconfidence in our ability to understand other people mind has already led to dramatic events. Humility and self-awareness of limitations are key elements we need to develop to reach empathic accuracy and remember that, for the environment, we all have the same interests.