Saturday, December 13, 2008

Empathy..... in action

EMPATHY .... in action !!

One of these days, as I was about to drink water from a bottle ( the white one in the picture) and lifted it up holding the bottle at the grip curved out ( observe the curved shaped bottle again ... you will understand what I am referring to ), a powerful thought came to me in a flash. Is it not an excellent example of “empathy” on part of the manufacturer of the bottle?

Yes, it was originally a soft drink bottle of a particular brand – having a capacity of 1.5 ltrs ... quite heavy when full, but still very covenient to use with the shape of the bottle specially curved at the right place to facilitate grip of the person holding the bottle. Not only that, there are also some dot-like things on the surface of the curve to make the surface coarse and thus build more friction while holding so as to prevent the bottle from slipping off your hand. Simply put, the bottle is pretty user-friendly.

Contrast this bottle with the older versions of the similar type of bottles minus the grip-curve. If you have ever tried to drink straight from a 1.5 ltr bottle full with soft drink or water and straight from the refrigerator ( i.e. with water vapours on the exterior of the bottle), then you would recall how slippery and inconvenient it used to be. Look at the blue bottle in the picture, without any curve and imagine it as big as the white one and you would be able to appreciate the contrast [ Sorry, could not find a bigger bottle for the pic].

In my opinion, it takes a lot of empathy to proactively build this kind of user-friendliness into products through small, small, apparently insignificant innovations in design, shape, size etc.. In a business context, even if these changes are done after evaluating customer suggestions/market feedback, that would still amount to being empathetic – as apart from having openness to feedback; you require an understanding of the perspectives of others from their suggestions and that is also empathy. What I would emphasise, though, in empathy is the proactiveness, the ability to anticipate the requirements of the end-users, the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes", or in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself.

Reminds me of something my father used to do.

At our home in our native place, the civic bodies are not so efficient about garbage clearance. Result ? Most of the times, residents pile up the garbage on the roadside from where the municipal carriers are supposed to pick them up – but by the time they arrive in the morning, half the garbage ( the green garbage – skins and peels of vegetables and fruits, left-overs of food etc. ) somehow get “ cleaned” when stray cows/animals eat them up from the roadside. You like it or not – this is a daily affair. So, what my father used to ensure was to have separate dustbins for green garbage into which no one was allowed to dump anything plastic, metal , cotton, or toxic.. so to say, anything that can inadvertently choke or harm an animal while feasting on the garbage !! Early in the morning, he would personally empty those bins and I have observed often, immediately some cow or ox would come running to feast on that .

So, what was it that used to drive my father to take so much care even in handling garbage - apparently a silly affair for many ? Tell me honestly, how many of us do that, or ever have thought about doing that ? Just to protect the stray animals ?? I think, it was his empathy for others – be them animals !! Well, I may add, perhaps it was lot of empathy mixed with a lot of sympathy. He must have first thought from the standpoint of a stray animal, who would be tempted to eat from the garbage, but would have no ability to discern and segregate the uneatables from the eatables . Simultaneously, he must have visualised the sufferings of the animal if anything dangerous like plastic bag etc. gets stuck in its throat – and exclaimed: poor animal !! That is compassion, sympathy or empathetic concern ( as distinct from empathy, in which you need not have compassion or pity ).

It is possible to be empathetic and sympathetic at the same time, though in many situations in real life, it is empathy which is the required thing more than sympathy . As someone rightly said: Give a man a fish a day .. you will feed him daily ( sympathy): Teach him how to fish, he will feed himself a lifetime without looking upto your favour ( empathy). That is, it is not charity ( driven by sympathy) but equipping the underprivileged and creating growth opportunities for them, wherein lies the essence.

Like to share another anecdote, I had read somewhere long time back, and just remember the essence. It is an excellent example of what empathy in practice means … or rather lack of empathy means.

Long story cut short, it goes like this. A Chief of an Army division once felt for the soldiers out in the front, spending their best part of life in bunkers without proper food, drink and other basic amenities. He thought, he should do something to cheer them up .... does not matter even if for a short while. He decided to send them icecream .. to be served in bunkers !! Well, the orders were carried out and one fine day, the soldiers were excited to find a consignment said to contain icecream reaching them in the bunkers. Excited, as they started serving the icecream, they realised that something was wrong .... the entire lot had melted on the way, and there were no spoons or other aids to eat the icecream with !! What thoughts are crossing your mind right now after reading this story ? To me, it is a classic example of lack of empathy !! The chief only thought of his part of the act ... sending the icecream...perhaps more with an unconscious desire to prove his magnanimity before himself ( oh! pat, pat ... I am so concerned about the joy of my boys out there !!) withouit really thinking about the end-users; how the soldiers would eventually receive and enjoy it. Had he put himself in the shoes of the soldiers in the bunkers, he would have ensured that icecream was delivered as such ( not as some melted semi-liquid) and he would have ensured spoons to serve and eat the icecream with. What was the purpose after all ? Sending icecream or pleasure of the soldiers in bunkers emanating out of eating ice cream ?

Usually, many of the so-called initiatives taken in personal as well as professional life fall flat as those are taken without any empathy – any genuine effort to understand what the others need or want in a specific situation. If you are an empathetic person, you would not be tempted to persuade another person to do what you want; instead you would understand what the other person wants, what the other person needs and then try help him to achieve it. How often do we tend to diagnose and give advice even before listening in a communication ? When that happens, it is a sure shot case of lack of empathy .

Another happening coming to my mind. A few months back, we had been to Lord Jagannath Temple during the daytime when the sun was pretty high and the steps were very hot. As you have to walk bare-foot inside the precincts of the temple, it could have been really horrible, but for the fact that there was arrangement for water pipes continuously watering the steps !! What relief to the devotees visiting the temple in high sun !! I had never observed this practice earlier. Must have been introduced recently by some empathetic soul related to temple administration !!

Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others without them being directly communicated intentionally. Out of such empathy emerges small initiatives leading to great impacts !!

Empathy can also be better appreciated as distinct from sympathy, although these two terms are, more often than not, being similarly used. They are not the same.

It is possible to be empathetic and not sympathetic at the same time. For example: If poverty and extreme adverse circumstances drives a poor man to commit a murder and he gets caught, you may feel empathetic and try to analyze the reason for his so doing; but you will not be sympathetic towards him as murder is a henious act and nothing justifies it.

It is also possible to be both empathetic and sympathetic at the same time. For example, if I have just lost a dear one to a fatal disease, you may sympathise with me for the loss and at the same time, you may also empathise with how aggrieved and sad I must be feeling at the loss of a dear one.

Merriam Webster defines as under :

Empathy: 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

Sympathy: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other b: mutual or parallel susceptibility or a condition brought about by it c: unity or harmony in action or effect.

As I understand, the difference between the two concepts is :

If you are depressed and as I talk to you, I also start having those feelings and feel depressed, I am having sympathy for you and this may place me in a depressed mood in which I may lose my ability to help you overcome the situation. But if on the other hand, as I talk to you, I don’t feel what you are feeling , but say, I can relate your feelings to something I had felt in a similar situation, I can say I can empathise with you. I can understand that you are depressed and I am still in a position to help you deal with the depressed state by additional feedback or just empathic listening.

Step back... and reflect on many of the daily routine interactions that you have in your professional life, you will be amazed to realise, what wonders can happen to our performance if only we put a bit of empathy into our dealings with our own colleagues and our customers... if only we first seek to understand and then try to be understood ( credit :Steven Covey) !!

I do not know if I have got it correct or not . Like to have your views, if you differ.

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