What Stops Us From Acting Empathetically?

quotes-helping-others-kathryn-schulz-600x411A recent conversation about empathy surfaced in a group I was working with.

One of the group members  described  an experience he had the previous night.  While eating dinner with his friends, a homeless person specifically approached him and asked for some money.

He shared that he did not give the person money at that time, because he was not  sure how it would be spent. But, he said, “if the homeless person had asked for food he would have given him food immediately.”

His story generated interest and a fruitful conversation that eventually led to the question, “ Does empathy have to lead to action?”

This question got me thinking about what prevents people from acting empathetically – especially since there is strong evidence indicating that we’re neurally wired for empathy. Continue reading

Softening The Edges Of The Heart

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Recently a client said to me,” I need to soften the edges of my heart.”

His comment surprised me but was consistent with the nature of the work we are doing together.   Successful and driven, my client has come to realize there’s been a high cost for ignoring personal feelings  connected with work. 

The comment certainly got me thinking – what does this mean for me – what do I need to pay attention to?

I tried to break it down into segments. First there is the notion of softening. Then, what does it mean to have an edge? And, exactly how should I think about the heart?  How then would I put it all together in a post so that it had resonance in terms of one’s personal and business life?

Edges create borders and boundaries. They can also create a separation between the self and others. In today’s workplace with all of its exigencies; global realities, rapid technological changes, competitiveness, fear, anxiety and uncertainty, it doesn’t take much for our edges to become unconsciously hardened.

Crossing the border into the other can feel too threatening. But what are the consequences of not doing so in terms of human connection, compassion, empathy and love? You can imagine the positive impact on workplace relationships, collaboration and individual performance when those hard edges soften and we walk respectfully and gently into the “territory” of the other.

When it comes to the workplace, the word territory has even greater implications. Increasing levels of fear, anxiety and uncertainty in the workplace, along with what seems to be institutionalized competition, insidiously hardens those heart borders between self and other. 

For example, let’s take employee engagement.

Gallup’s employee engagement study revealed that 30% of U.S. employees are engaged, 52% disengaged and 18% actively disengaged.  In other words, 70% of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.  As the study suggests, a glaring factor influencing employee engagement is an employee’s relationship with his or her own direct manager. The dynamics driving those statistics really goes to the “heart of the matter.”

As much as some organizations encourage employees to check their psychological and emotional lives at the door… it’s impossible. Our relationship to our work extends well beyond our job description. A manager’s ability to cross the “border” into an employee’s unique humanness: their beliefs, values, emotions and needs; thereby demonstrating empathy and understanding of who they are, not just what they do, requires the willingness to act from the heart, not just from the head.

The trajectory of the US workplace since the industrial revolution has brought us to an inflection point where businesses, if they are to be profitable and survive, must shift to a people-oriented mindset.

As expressed in her post, Management’s Three Eras: A Brief History, Rita McGrath traces three eras of management thinking, (execution, expertise and empathy) – from the industrial revolution to present day management theorizing.If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

So, if we accept the notion that we’re in the era of ‘managerial” empathy, trust the validity of the Gallup study, and the truthfulness of our own personal experience about what appears to be lacking in manager-employee relations; what then is the corollary with softening the edges of our heart?

How often have you heard people say, “ Follow your heart,” ‘Let’s get to the heart of the matter,” or  “He’s suffering from a broken heart?” Where do those statements come from? They’re not formulated out of thin air. They come from a deep, viscerally instinctive place of unconscious knowing in our bodies. There’s plenty of scientific studies supporting the suggestion that the heart is more than an organ that pumps blood…in itself, an extraordinary feat.

Stephen Porges, Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in his Polyvagal Theory proposes that the vagus nerve communicates between the brain and the heart and that our unconscious perceptions of threat and safety are connected to heart rate rhythm and the ability to regulate physiological arousal.

According to Porges, we have a multi-level, hierarchical nervous response system to threats to our safety, whether real or imagined. The most primitive response system causes us to freeze and go numb when threatened, but are immobilized and unable to escape it.

At the middle layer, if our brains perceive a potentially escapable threat, the vagus nerve will shut down this primitive system and activate the“fight or flight” response. 

At the highest level, if our brains perceive the environment is safe, the vagus will shut down the fight or flight response, turn off the autonomic nervous system, send a message that we are safe and trigger the social engagement system. Our heart rate then slows down. This system operates unconsciously and involves the muscles of the face and inner ear, affecting how we respond to the prosodic and non verbal aspects of communication when people speak to us.

Not only can we soften the edges of our own hearts through heart intelligence; we can also help soften the edges of other’s hearts. Because of the connections between the heart, inner ear and facial movements we can have a significant impact on another’s heart response through conscious awareness and moderation of our facial expressions and speech patterns.

Using our heart intelligence not only involves using the knowledge of neuroscience, it also requires self-awareness and acts of compassion, empathy and forgiveness to help inoculate us from arrogance, righteousness, judgments, anger, and retaliation.

Softening the edges of our hearts raises the question  – how willing are we to open ourselves to others, take off our protective gear and assume ownership for our flaws.? Human hearts are fragile. Can we relate from a place of compassion when others’ fears drive behaviors intended to emotionally hurt us?

When we communicate from a place of authenticity, genuinely share our feelings with a gentleness that takes to heart how vulnerable we all are, people become less defensive and more receptive.

Acting from a heart place doesn’t mean we can’t establish boundaries that protect us from unkind behaviors, but it does mean that we don’t have to respond to others in ways that shut off the heart response and miss the opportunity to transform ourselves and others.

Henry David Thoreau captured the “magic” of the potential heart connection when he said,Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. 

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Feeling Safe is Fundamental to Every Human Interaction

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Just imagine for a moment that it’s a late evening and you’ve just landed at the airport.

You’re eager to return home.  But, first you have to go to the parking lot to pick up your car. The shuttle bus drops you off at the edge of the parking lot. With your backpack slung across your shoulder, pulling your carry-on suitcase, you head for the spot where you remember parking your car. It’s dark and the only light falling on the lot comes from a few lamps on the periphery of the fence.  As you slowly make your way to the space where you believe your car is parked….you see that it’s not there.

What are you feeling in that moment? Not thinking – but feeling?

If you’ve ever had a similar experience you triggered a fight/flight/freeze response – whether alone or with another person – activating your sympathetic nervous system. It’s the system that stimulates the body for action, such as increasing the heart rate, increasing the release of sugar from the liver into the blood, and other responses that serve to fight off or retreat from danger.

Our emotional responses can arise from feelings (physiological responses) in our organs and intestines, as much as any direct cognitive input. What we feel in our “gut” is transmitted via the vagus nerve (responsible for social engagement strategy) to a region of the brain called the anterior insular cortex, which is involved in consciousness and functions usually linked to emotion or the regulation of the body’s homeostasis.

Let’ get back to the parking lot for a minute. Continue reading

How Emotions Shape Decision-Making

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Many people I work with ask the question, “Don’t emotions interfere with good decision-making?”  This article, generously shared by my partner at the Intentional Workplace, explains the process. 

There is little disagreement that effective decision-making is one of the most important tasks we must master to achieve success in every part of life.

If we were to take a survey in the average workplace to poll what people believed was most needed for effective decision-making, which of these do you think would top the list?

  • Factual information?
  • Risk assessment?
  • Clear thinking?
  • Limited emotional interference?

If you chose the last item, I’d like you to reconsider.

In his book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (first published in 1994)  one of the world’s top neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio, profiled his patient, Elliott, one of his most well-known cases.  Formerly a successful businessman, model father and husband, Elliott suffered from ventromedial frontal lobe damage as a result of a tumor and subsequent surgery for removal.

Following his operation, Elliot dispassionately reported to Damasio that his life was falling apart.  While still in the 97th percentile for IQ, Elliot lacked all motivation. His marriage collapsed as did each new business he started.  Damasio found Elliott an “uninvolved spectator” in his own life, “He was always controlled. Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the protagonist. I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.”

It was clear to Damasio that as a result of his surgery, Elliot was incapable of making decisions“Elliott emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social matters.” Even small decisions were fraught with endless deliberation: making an appointment took 30 minutes, choosing where to eat lunch took all afternoon, even deciding which color pen to use to fill out office forms was a chore.  Turns out Elliott’s lack of emotion paralyzed his decision-making.

In the preface to the 2005 edition of Descartes Error, Damasio wrote, Today this idea [that emotion assists the reasoning process] does not cause any raised eyebrows. However, while this idea may not raise any eyebrows today among neuroscientists, I believe it’s still a surprise to the general public.  We’re trained to regard emotions as irrational impulses that are likely to lead us astray.  When we describe someone as “emotional,” it’s usually a criticism that suggests that they lack good judgment.  And the most logical and intelligent figures in popular culture are those who exert the greatest control over their emotions–or who seem to feel no emotions at all.”

Although neuroscience has built a strong body of evidence over twenty-five years to demonstrate the inextricable link between reason, emotion and decision-making most of mainstream culture still doesn’t get it.  Continue reading

5 Ways Using Neuroscience Improves Coaching

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While there are critics of neuroscience and its interpretations who worry about the “culture’s obsession with the brain and how we have elevated the vital organ into cultish status, mythologizing its functions and romanticizing the promise of its scientific study,” there is unquestionably a place for neuroscience in the coaching relationship.

In  full disclosure I am a coach and organizational development consultant and not a neuroscientist, but I have a passion for social neuroscience. And I’m well informed about the most recent research – so much so, that it has become an integral part of my coaching and consulting practice.

On a purely practical level I’ve found that every coaching experience can benefit from learning and integrating some key principles from the growing field of neuroscience.   Perhaps one of the greatest “revelations” for many coaching clients is the understanding that they can shift their thoughts and feelings and change behavior. Continue reading