09 Nov The Power of Empathy
Empathy is a soft metric, but an important way to think about human behavior and motivation. The word comes from the Greek em – in, pathos – passion or suffering. Empathy is by definition the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Empathy is different than sympathy. When somebody feels sympathy for another person it means they can identify with certain feelings the other person may be feeling. Empathy differs from sympathy because it means being able to share the whole experience of another individual. Sympathy is more about feeling sorry for someone, while empathy is about trying to understand what it is they are going through. Unlike personal distress, empathy is not characterized by aversion to another’s emotional response.
This ability to feel what others are going through has been seen in neuroscience research. First in the discovery of mirror neurons and claims that these neurons, which fire both when the individual performs an action and when it observes its execution by others.1 There have also been observational studies that demonstrate that empathy recruits similar neural networks as the direct experience of the emotion one is showing to another individual2. In other words, we are able to understand and share the emotions of others by, (partially) processing them with our very own emotion system(s). And there is a spontaneous sharing of affect or emotional impact provoked by witnessing and sympathizing with another’s emotional state that is also consequently pro-social or altruistic in action.
Trade has partnered with a health education company as they work to recognize and plan for empathy as a behavior change driver. This health education company has accomplished this through small-group working sessions that cover topics like medications, health condition monitoring and healthy eating. Topics have included:
- Examining common myths and facts about a condition and how it affects the body
- Strategies for managing conditions and reviews of various medications available
- How to perform tests, interpret results and create plans of action based on those results
- Healthy eating and diet
- Staying active and exercise
In group sessions, shared empathy though shared story happens. Group discussion helps overcome stress, vulnerability and helplessness of what might have been considered a solitary condition based existence. In a group discussion, bonds are forged and people are influenced, sometimes deeply, by others acceptance, feedback and related stories. It’s a trust that’s based on shared circumstance and similar themes or experiences. Threats become shared. I becomes “we.” The personal sense of resource availability is also expanded.
The question always arises about using the internet as a support group tool. There are a variety of support groups and conversations about health conditions happening all the time online. The internet medium and designed guided response can drive empathetic behavior through time shifted shared story. This is much like any good story – when you read it the story taps into an empathetic response. Although there is something to the time commitment required for in-person that suggests people willing to drive to and from a location may want to get more out of it. Yet as societal norms become more digitally enabled, so to will forms of patient support. This holds especially true as those comfortable with digital living, while not native to it, age into ongoing health condition management.
We live in a world now where these little things really do matter. Each encounter, no matter how brief, is a micro interaction that makes a deposit or withdrawal from our subconscious. Whether that interaction can tap into powerful empathetic response is a function of story and design. The sum of these interactions and encounters adds up to how we relate to our health condition and should also add up to how we feel about a particular product, brand or service that claims to help us.
To learn more about how Trade can assist your organization, contact 404-900-5592
To contact the author
Rick Shaughnessy, Partner
2 Preston, de Waal http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12625087