A few months ago I was driving to a doctor’s appointment when I was cut off by another car, or I should say by another driver. After all, it wasn’t the car’s fault. Anyway, I was startled and angry. Adrenaline flooded me, and I jammed on the brakes nearly running into another car.
You know how it feels when you think you’ve been “wronged.” I don’t think of myself as a vengeful person, but I instinctively felt the need to “get back” at this driver to even things up. It took a few minutes for me to calm down even as I continued to my appointment.
As I sat in my doc’s waiting room I started thinking about this crazy driver. I was still feeling resentful. Why was he in such a hurry and so careless? We were close to a hospital, so then I started wondering if the driver might be a surgeon, maybe on his way to an emergency. What if it was one of those organ transplants that have to be done within a tight time window? Maybe even for a child. One simple speculation suddenly began to change how I felt about him and about being cut off
Of course I had no way of knowing whether the erratic driver was a doctor, but I realized how reframing the incident calmed me down. It showed me that summoning empathy, regardless of whether it was deserved, made me feel less anxious. All of a sudden I wasn't so angry or need some crazy payback. Just imagining that the driver might have had a good reason for his actions relaxed me. It made me feel better about myself.
Now what does this have to do with our greeting cards?
Each week we pick a greeting card from our GreetingPIX.com website and write about what inspired the card. This week we selected A Simple Religion because it’s about empathy. Not what you expect from a greeting card...and that is exactly why we wrote it. We like to show that our cards really are different. This coming week as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s life, it also seems like the right time to talk about empathy.
First, some background about empathy. I like this definition from SkillsYouNeed.com/ They say “Empathy is the ability to see the world as another person, to share and understand another person’s feelings, needs, concerns and/or emotional state.”
Two psychologists at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence wrote an article last year in The Huffington Post that analyzed the use of empathy in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Here is a small part of what Dr. Diana Divecha and Dr. Robin Stern said: “Dr. King's empathy let his listeners ‘feel felt.’ By using emotional examples, Dr. King acknowledged their [the people] sufferings with phrases like, ‘Some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation.’ And he named their experiences, acknowledging that they'd been jailed, discriminated against, blocked from the pursuit of happiness. He connected with his audience by naming the values they shared and their vision of the future. He felt, and transmitted, compassion.”
Can Empathy Be a Bad Thing?
How many times have you been in an argument with someone over politics, sports, religion or whatever, and walked away thinking they were nuts, naive, or even hateful? Why is it hard for us to listen to ideas that feel “so wrong?” Is it because our brains are hardwired to resist contrarian views? Do we feel actual pain from hearing things we don’t like?
A group of NYU brain researchers believe our brains are hardwired to see the world a certain way and moreover to resist change. The "us-versus-them" mindset can make us very blind when we try to process new political information. If these brain researchers are right, it’s no wonder that religious zealots find it hard to feel empathy for other ways to worship. (Read more about this research in Brian Resnick’s National Journal article, The Battle For Your Brain.)
More than a few people think empathy is a weakness. In business, for example, critics argue that empathetic negotiation can make you less assertive, allowing your adversary to walk all over you.
Think how easy it would be for management to dominate labor relations if the unions felt too much empathy for owners and investors.
What about sports? If winning is the only thing, would a NFL linebacker perform better or worse if he worried about how the running back felt when he drove his helmet into the turf?
Would the coach be more successful if he called plays that kept the game closer, so the media would go easy on the opposing coach?
Could we have less crime if prison guards really understood and appreciated the inmates problems? Or would empathy cause guards to be taken advantage of and put them in greater danger?
But can we really blame our hardwiring for all our biases? Or are they learned behaviors and changeable?
Empathy Is Like Muscle
The belief that our brains are hardwired to resist change doesn’t mean that we can’t change. The secret, according to the NYU scientists, is having the right “incentive.” So we can change our political values, for example, if we have good reason. It’s a little like realizing that we can change our bodies by using free weights.
It takes conscious thought and fearless introspection to examine our biases and values. I recently viewed the November 2014 Ted Talk by Verna Myers, called How to Overcome Our Biases By Walking Toward Them. She says the first step is to take an honest inventory of our biases and then confront them. She asks us to treat each person as an individual for who they are, not for how we label them.
Empathy can also feel painful when we care about others' troubles and want to do something for them, but empathy can also eliminate pain. Here’s how. Biases, like superstitions, are typically irrational and can make us unnecessarily fearful.
Fear causes pain. Empathy can open our minds and make us less fearful or angry. For example, being cut off in my car made me angry and consumed a lot of energy that could have been directed in more useful ways.
Cooperation vs. Competition
A lack of empathy can be dangerous when we treat everyone like opponents. Soldiers returning from the battlefield, may feel little or no empathy for the enemy, but that same lack of feeling will damage their relationships at home.
The need to dominate others and win every argument or discussion can make it hard for us to get along with others and prevent us from getting what we really want.
Business is highly competitive, but marketers also know that success in business is about serving customers. That means appreciating the customers’ attitudes, interests and opinions, and not making value judgments about whether their desires are right or wrong. It’s about serving needs, period.
That kind of empathy takes imagination. It is the ability to feel what others are going through and it motivates us to step in and help when others are in need. President Barrack Obama said, “When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”
New ideas in video gaming may even teach empathy. Video Games for Grown-ups, by Adam Bluestein in the December 2014 issue of Fast Company Magazine, shows how gaming companies such as Funomena are part of the emerging “deep games’ movement,” where players “win” by becoming more enlightened, empathetic people. That makes us kinder, more generous, and more likable.
Empathy Helps Communication
The more we feel what others are going through in life, the better we can help them express those feelings to others.
We believe that greeting cards can promote communication and empathy because they show others that we care about them. Our goal as writers is to offer more opportunities for people to express themselves and stay in touch, whether far away or next door. Just knowing that someone is thinking about us can lift our spirits.
We are inspired by everyday moments and by what other people write and talk about.
Being cut off by another driver made me wonder: What if the only value we need to counter anger is empathy? Wouldn’t that be a simple religion? We hope you share this card with that in mind.
You can see more unusual cards like this one on our Quirky page at... http://www.GreetingPIX.com/quirky