Tracy Wilde, rising celebrity pastor who helped launch the LA Bible Study in Hollywood, reflects on the absence of empathy in today’s world and shares how Christians can renew their compassion to help unify not only the church, but society as well.
In The Lost Art of Empathy, Tracy Wilde addresses the reasons why we struggle with showing empathy toward others and explains why we ultimately avoid it—and even avoid contact with others altogether. She explores the different facets that have promoted isolation instead of community and provides the antidote for a more unified, loving, and empathetic society. In this book Wilde hopes to inspire all of us to self-reflect and remove those obstacles from our lives so that we can experience true fulfillment in our relationships—the way God intended us to.
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About the Author
Tracy Wilde is a fifth generation pastor and preacher. Her great-great grandmother Taylor was a circuit preacher. Tracy’s fresh and honest message helps break down walls of insecurity and encourages people to find hope and purpose in Jesus alone. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s of divinity degree in practical theology. Fresh out of college Tracy was offered a job in the Governor’s office of her home state and later moved to Capitol Hill in Washington DC, where she helped lead Bible study groups for congressional leaders, their families, and staff members. After finishing seminary, Tracy moved to Los Angeles, CA, where she helped pioneer and pastor for a Bible-study-turned-church for young Hollywood. Tracy loves wake surfing, paddle boarding, and basically anything else that has to do with warm weather and water.
Read an Excerpt
Finding the Lost Art of Empathy
Sympathy versus Empathy
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
I say, “I love you,” to everyone.
I say, “I love you,” to my family. I say, “I love you,” to my friends. I say, “I love you,” to my neighbor Marilee. I say, “I love you,” to people I’ve just met. I say, “I love you,” to my dog. Most important, I say, “I love you,” to baristas because they give me coffee.
I freely say “I love you” because I love people. But it can get weird.
The other day when I was at a meeting, I noticed a man I didn’t recognize wave to me from across the room with a big smile, leading me to believe that I knew him. But I didn’t that I could remember. So as I walked across the room, I dug deep into the recesses of my mind to recall who the guy is and how I know this smiling stranger.
By the time I approach him, I’ve got nothing.
I don’t know if he’s from my church. I don’t know if he works at my dry cleaners. I don’t know if he’s my fifth-grade teacher. All I know is he’s still smiling and seems to know who I am.
So naturally, as that distance between us grows smaller and being a naturally loving person, I go in for the awkward hug. After the uncomfortable embrace, made more uncomfortable by my nerve-induced sweat, he makes a formal introduction, and I realize I didn’t recognize him because I didn’t know him!
Given my propensity for loving people in general, I’ll probably always love and hug friendly strangers. But the reality is that there is a difference between loving a stranger or an acquaintance and showing love toward someone you know.
Think about the starting point of any relationship. It can start off really awkward, but then you get to know the person—you know their favorite food, how many siblings they have, where they’re from, whether they are an INTJ or an ENFP (by the way, I’m an ESFJ). Obviously the level of your love for someone will develop and grow deeper the more you get to know that person. My love for the smiling stranger came from my overall love for people—for God’s children. But my sister? Of course, my love for her runs far deeper.
There is a similar difference between sympathy and empathy.
When you sympathize with someone, you go online or to a store and peruse the sympathy cards. You usually find an array of visuals ranging from elegant-looking lilies to mopey-eyed puppies. You grab one, write “With love” and sign your name, seal and stamp it, and stick it in the mailbox.
But when you show empathy, you step into a much deeper level of another person’s pain. You jump in the pit and get your hands dirty. This can be done in a number of ways, and there are no limits. You can go to the hospital and sit with someone who is waiting to receive the good or bad news. You listen and attempt to understand the breadth of the situation, no matter how troubling or difficult. You’re physically and emotionally available for whatever the need is at the time.
It’s not so easy.
And it’s where so many of us walk on by.
• • •
In my research to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy, I went back to the root of each word. For instance, sympathy comes from the Greek origin sun, meaning with, plus pathos, meaning feeling. So sympathy means with feeling.
On the flip side, empathy is em, meaning in, plus pathos, meaning feeling. In feeling. In the situation. In the valley with another hurting soul.
In a nutshell, sympathy skims the surface. That’s not a bad thing; it’s appropriate to show sympathy some of the time. But empathy goes deeper: it includes action. The key difference between the two is that the former can be shown without full understanding or connection.
Sympathy feels a lot like signing a card with love or giving a sweaty hug to a stranger.
Empathy is a whole lot more. It feels like being in feeling.
It feels (kind of) like being in love.
Walk a Mile
Please bear with me a moment while I attempt to get a little scientific on you. Keep in mind that I am by no means an expert (my only C in college was in biology), but I am an answer-seeking and research-collecting kind of woman, and I will indulge here.
Recent work in neuroscience has unlocked tremendous findings about empathy and the human brain. In one of philosophy’s most famous and long-standing texts, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes wrote that we humans are wired as self-interested creatures who seek only our own individual desires and needs. This philosophy of self-interest has certainly dominated our Western thinking. However, there is proof that we are also wired for empathy.
The discovery came from a team of neuroscientists at the University of Parma, Italy, in 1990. Italian researcher Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team (Luciano Fadiga, Vittorio Gallese, and Leonardo Fogassi) conducted experiments on monkeys with an implanted electrode in their brains. While observing the monkeys, the researchers discovered that a certain part of the monkey’s brain, the premotor cortex, was activated when the monkey picked up an object. Later, they discovered quite inadvertently that the same part of the monkey’s brain was activated and lit up when the monkey saw one of the researchers picking up that same object. Roman Krznaric, a social philosopher and leading voice on empathy, notes in his book Empathy Why It Matters, and How to Get It that this finding was later confirmed through more experiments with monkeys and humans by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).I We’ve all experienced this phenomenon when we see someone stub his or her toe and we wince in pain as if we too had stubbed our toe.
Krznaric explains this groundbreaking evidence:
They had accidentally discovered “mirror neurons.” These are neurons that fire up both when we experience something (such as pain) and also when we see somebody else going through the same experience. People with lots of mirror cells tend to be more empathetic, especially in terms of sharing emotions. According to Rizzolatti, “mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct stimulation.” Eminent neuroscientist Vilanyanur Ramachandran has compared the discovery of mirror neurons to Crick and Watson’s double-helix revelation: “I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.”II
If nothing else, this discovery of mirror neurons finally helps me solve the mystery as to why I yawn every time I see another person yawn: it is because of my empathetic brain! So we are actually wired for empathy. Great news! But if we are wired for it, then why don’t we respond to our empathetic impulses? Well, mirror neurons are only part of the story.
We might be wired for empathy, but our brains aren’t always activated for it.
Jeremy Rifkin, an American social theorist, shows in his book The Empathetic Civilization that although we have the ability for emotional empathy, which is fired by our mirror neurons, there is another side to our empathetic brain, which is our cognitive empathy. This is the aspect of empathy that helps us to understand not just the feelings of others but their thoughts as well. Cognitive empathy is putting yourself in someone’s else place or perspective.
Rifkin argues that when this cognitive part of empathy is practiced,
one develops a moral sensitivity to the extent one is embedded, from infancy, in a nurturing parental, familial, and neighborhood environment. Society can foster that environment by providing the appropriate social and public context. While primitive empathic potential is wired into the brain chemistry of some mammals, and especially the primates, its mature expression in humans requires learning and practice and a conducive environment.III
In other words, we can train ourselves to be more empathetic by putting ourselves in an emotionally neutral state and then letting our neutral emotions enter into another person’s pain and think from his or her perspective. Strictly speaking, we can become more empathetic by training ourselves to think about a situation from our own point of view and from someone else’s. The problem is that we often struggle to make this brain connection due to the fact that we rely on our own thoughts and feelings as a reference for viewing others rather than a neutral state. I call this the Thomas Hobbes effect. Simply put, we don’t know how to put ourselves in another person’s world. We rely on our own feelings, self-interests, and experiences to be our gauge for empathy. For example, if you have spent the holidays with your entire extended family, you have a pretty good gauge on your empathy scale when you take a look at blending family traditions. As we get older and start our own families, we also begin new traditions and preferences, and they often look drastically different from those of our other family members. Instead of recognizing how foolish it is to be obsessed with our self-interest and traditions, we often explode with anger and frustration at our loved ones because one person wants to open presents Christmas Eve while the other person wants to open them Christmas morning.
Lack of empathy often is.
Our brain wants to work to adjust and correct our self-centered tendencies, but we have to practice thinking from a perspective different from our own.
Neuroscientists believe our brains are extremely malleable. A significant amount of research concludes that the ability to show empathy can improve greatly with practice. If this is true, then this is great news for all of us! We don’t have to have shared experiences (or been through what others have been through) in order to empathize with another person; we just need to practice placing ourselves in another person’s world.IV
You no doubt know the often-heard adage that says, “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” I think a better approach to empathy is to put ourselves in another person’s world. When you place yourself in another person’s world, you see and experience his perspective from his point of view (i.e., cultural context and historiocity as well as linguistic nuances). When we do this, we can better experience the scope of his feelings and life. By putting ourselves in the midst of his world, consistent and intentional empathy can become habitual and second nature to us.
Aristotle was right: “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Practice makes perfect. Training ourselves to think and feel what another person might be experiencing is possible. In fact, it is the best way to be human. The more we do something, the more it becomes who we are. The exciting part of this concept is that it applies to everyone. None of us are too far from loving our neighbor and living an altruistic life. None of us are too far from putting ourselves in another person’s world. All of us are on the journey together, learning to be present and to listen.
We practice ways to succeed in our careers, education, or finances. We measure our success by who we know, what kind of car we drive, and the price tag on our clothes. We rarely think of empathy as a measure of success. I think the most successful people in the world are the ones who can recognize a need and activate empathy in the midst of our growing self-obsessed world.
So, good news! Getting an A in empathy is way more important than getting a C in biology (at least that’s what I tell myself).
Recently I was at church listening to a message by a preacher who was giving a practical and personal illustration to the scripture he was highlighting. I had stayed up a little too late the night before and hadn’t yet had enough coffee to fully engage like I usually do, but I laughed when everyone else laughed, said “amen” when others around me shared the sentiment, and even wrote notes (well, doodled on my notepad).
Out of the blue, the preacher must have said something quite funny because the congregation roared in laughter. Naturally I joined in and even added a hand-to-knee slap. My friend sitting next to me said, “What did he say? I missed it.” Busted! I had no idea what the preacher said because I clearly wasn’t listening and neither was my friend. So while everyone was connected to the preacher and his illustration, my friend and I were completely out of the loop.
I was immediately convicted when I thought back on my seminary years when I had studied the concept of active listening. Active listening is not easy. Essentially it is the ability to be totally present in the moment. It requires our full attention and the ability to shut our brain off and stop thinking about anything except for what another person is saying. That’s hard. The entire point of active listening is to listen to gain understanding. It requires that the listener ask questions in the quest to comprehend. The listener will seek to confirm she is on the right track by responding, “This is what I hear you saying.” It’s to help verify that the listener truly is on the path to understanding.
However, most of the time when we’re listening to someone, our brains are working hard to process the next thing we’re going to say. We tend to listen to respond, not to understand. How many conversations have you had where someone was pouring out her heart to you, and you were thinking and formulating what you were going to say the moment there was a break in her speech? We do this all the time! But you can’t effectively listen to someone if you’re thinking about what you’re going to say when she finally stops talking. How many times have you looked down at your phone because you felt uncomfortable with the person or crowd you were with, or because you felt the awkwardness that comes with being alone? Or what about when sitting at stoplights? Or at dinner parties (when you should be engaging in the conversation)? Sitting in a coffee shop? We all do it.
But what if we were more intentional?
What if we were more willing to engage?
What if we sought strangers out for conversation?
Jesus illustrates this for us in John 4 when he engages in conversation with a woman at a well. It was a dialogue with a Samaritan woman—one who, culturally and historically, had no voice or status in society. He positioned himself to have a conversation with someone no one else would have dared talk to. It was the sixth hour of the day, which was considered a very unusual time to come to a well in ancient times. This indicated that those who came at that hour didn’t want to be seen or talk to others. And yet Jesus sat down by the well and waited. When the woman approached, he asked for a drink in order to start a conversation. This wasn’t a chance encounter: Jesus had placed himself there. He knew she was struggling and searching for love in all the wrong places. She had been married four times and was now sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband. But instead of avoiding the topic and a potentially compromising situation—a man couldn’t be seen talking to a woman alone—Jesus stayed and conversed. He acknowledged her circumstances without judgment and gave her hope for a new and different kind of life.
Jesus models for us something the rest of us struggle to exercise. He didn’t try to avoid an uncomfortable conversation; rather, he strategically placed himself in a situation where he could give complete attention to the woman even though he broke every social taboo of his time.
Sadly, we have become a society of conflict avoiders. In other words, we’re conversation dodgers when it comes to talking about painful and uncomfortable circumstances. One of the calls for every person is to be relational—it’s the way we were intended to be—which involves uplifting, meaningful, and encouraging conversation, even with those whom we are taught to culturally evade.
Think about it. If we engage only with people who have the same socioeconomic status as us, how will we learn about and connect with people different from us? Just imagine if when we run into someone who we know is suffering, we stop to converse and engage about real-life issues, as Jesus did. Our capacity for empathy would grow, our perspective and sensitivity toward others would broaden, and our lives would look a lot more like Jesus’.
• • •
Text messaging and Facebook have become our replacement for human connection and conversation, so when an actual human sits down face-to-face and begins to talk, we struggle to know how to gauge that person’s mood or carry on a meaningful conversation. We have an escape addiction to our media devices. You don’t believe me? How many times have you had to stop reading this book to check your phone? If you get to a restaurant before the person you are meeting arrives, do you scroll through Instagram and Snapchat, or do you engage in conversation with someone around you, perhaps the waiter? Exactly. To be fair, I am every bit as guilty as the next person.
We can’t have healthy or thriving relationships with people if we don’t actively listen and engage with them . . . and I mean really listen.
I can have a conversation with someone and not hear a single thing she said to me. She can talk away, or even confess to a murder, while I think about that funny thing Jimmy Fallon said the night before on the Tonight Show, or make a mental list of all the things I need to accomplish in the next four hours. We’re masters at this. We can smile and nod at the appropriate times and throw in the occasional “wow,” “totally,” “so sorry,” or “yeah, for sure.” We know how to have full conversations without ever hearing anything. And then we walk away feeling proud of ourselves for giving another human some of our precious time and day when actually we gave her nothing. In fact, it was less than nothing. We gave her the impression of empathic listening, but we gave only the illusion that we care. And that illusion is shallow and dehumanizing.
A boyfriend once gave me Gary Chapman’s bestselling book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. We were dating and he wanted me to know his love language (I got it—but that’s another story). The book is excellent and has no doubt done wonders for relationships around the world. It also made the phrase “filling your love tank” famous.
Chapman argues that every person gives and receives love in the five categories he lays out in the book: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch. The nature and premise is to teach couples to explore and discover (through the corresponding love language test) what their companion’s love language is so they are better able to give love the way their partner best receives it. Rarely do couples share the same primary love language, which is why this book proved to be so helpful. Chapman’s goal is to teach readers how to speak their loved one’s love language—not their own. The book, groundbreaking when it was published in 1995, has evolved into more editions that include more than just romantic couples. There are now editions for singles, children, teenagers, those in the military, men, and women.
My number one love language is acts of service. If someone (say, my sweet sister-in-law, Kelly) comes over to my house and helps assemble the credenza I ordered for my dining room, I will turn into a big puddle of love. There’s something about someone going out of his or her way to help me with something that melts my heart. Chapman’s love language theory states that people should not use the language they like to receive but the language in which the other person best receives love.
The only way you can know someone’s love language is by listening. For instance, if you hear your friend or spouse say something like, “I miss spending time with you,” you can pretty much bank on quality time being her primary love language. Or perhaps a frustrated stay-at-home mom barks at her husband the moment he walks in the house after a long day, “I just wish I could get some help around here.” Acts of service might be that exhausted mom/wife’s love language. And the person who feels the need to constantly touch you for no apparent reason is probably trying to tell you that his language is physical touch. You can also tell someone’s love language by observing how that person gives to others. If someone likes to give gifts, then gifting is likely the language she likes to receive. If someone is always giving others words of affirmation, that’s likely his language since we typically speak our own language.
But this is where a lot of us get it wrong.
In order to connect with someone else, we must learn to speak that person’s language, not ours.
The other day, my friend Kate told me she was trying to figure out a good way to reach out to a mutual friend who was going through a painful loss. Kate said with a sigh, “I’m just not good with words. So I stopped by her house, but she didn’t seem to want my help with anything.” What I remembered and realized in that moment was that our friend has a love language of words of affirmation, so that’s what the hurting friend needed. Kate, who is a lot like me, offered acts of service, not what our friend needed. What she needed were words. This is where so many of us fall short in our efforts to show empathy. We reach out the way we think we would want to receive it instead of how the other person needs it.
So back to the benefits of active listening: they are twofold. On one end, you listen to gain perspective—neutralizing your thoughts and emotions, then putting yourself in the other person’s world. The person on the other end receives the gift of truly being heard. Listening is at its best when we listen to understand, not to respond. That’s when empathy reaches its fullest impact. If we could all grasp this one concept—listening to understand—I think we could change the world. At least we would change our marriage, families, friendships, and work relationships—not a bad thing to strive for.
My mom is the quintessential nurturing mom. She’s the greatest in all forms and ways. She is my biggest cheerleader, supporter, and encourager. And my mom loves to tell her three kids how much she loves us and is proud of us (I hope I inherited this trait). The only problem is that those three kids, now grown and living on their own, don’t exactly like talking on the phone.
Mom’s phone calls typically last longer than we want even though we say, “Gotta run, Mom,” or, “Sounds great; I’ll talk to you later.” She, like any other great mom, finds another extremely important talking point to delay the inevitable good-bye. So when our mom would call to have a chat or check in with her adult kids, we would easily let it go to voice mail. We had become text, not talk, people.
One day I was with my mom, and she noticed I was texting. She asked who I was texting, and I told her it was Krist, my older brother—her firstborn. In fact, it turned out that she had been trying to reach Krist for hours, to no avail. She turned to me and asked, “Will you teach me how to text?” A little shocked, I looked at her and saw the wheels turning in her head. In that moment, my smart mom discovered she was going to have to start texting if she hoped to stay connected to her kids as she liked. Of course I obliged, and now Mom is the queen of texting. And she must get her tech-savvy ways from her mom, because her mom, my ninety-five-year-old grandma, has an iPhone and an Instagram account!
Those of us born in the 1980s and 1990s have never known anything other than communicating through technology. This trend developed into a standard way of life right before our eyes and into our hands. I got my first cell phone when I was fifteen years old, a young age back then to have a cell phone (though not compared to today’s standards). I was one of the few kids my age who had a cell phone. Even more incredible, my older brother and sister, respectively, four and two years older than me, didn’t have their own cell phones yet.
I am a part of the first generation to grow up in the Information Age. It was great! Writing papers for school became far easier with the use of the Internet rather than having to spend hours in a library. My mom worried less about me when I was out late with friends because I could call her to let her know where I was. If I had car trouble or ran out of gas, it was no big deal and nothing to fear since I could use my phone to call AAA. Productivity, peace of mind, and safety were just a few of the many benefits of the rising digital age.
What we didn’t realize as we were sending an email instead of having a face-to-face meeting or a text message instead of a coffee date is that we began losing the very thing that humans were created to do: converse and relate on a personal level. Making eye contact is now something I have to consciously think about doing. Listening is something I have to force myself to engage in. And yet these are the fundamental aspects of human connection.
• • •
We are now entering our second generation of users, so what started as a trend is now commonplace for everyone. What’s more, my generation is now leading homes and communities—even our world. We are having children who are introduced to cell phones, computers, tablets, and remote controls when they are toddlers. We are now many of the decision makers on Capitol Hill and the influencers in Hollywood. Yet we have become inept at talking face-to-face with meaning and ease. I think this is a contributing factor to the rise of online dating. Twenty- and thirty-somethings are far more comfortable meeting a potential significant other online or using a dating app rather than face-to-face in a public setting.
Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, has spent the past thirty years studying and researching the psychology of people’s relationships with technology. In her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle believes that much of the reason for this “crisis of empathy” in our culture today is due to our relationship with digital technology. In other words, our phones are creating an empathy gap.
Simply put, we don’t know how to empathize because we don’t know how to have face-to-face conversations. The way we develop emotional intelligence and the ability to read body language can occur only from live conversations. Turkle observes, “In the past twenty years we’ve seen a 40 percent decline in the markers for empathy among college students, most of it within the past ten years. It is a trend that researchers link to the new presence of digital communications.”V Turkle’s antidote to this growing problem is reclaiming conversation: learning how to engage with one another face-to-face, learning to listen, and learning to read body language. Without conversation we have become emotionally underdeveloped. (And, no, emojis don’t count.) Because conversation growth has been stunted, particularly among millennials and those younger, it has seemed to develop rather emotionally immature adults. These adults can’t handle face-to-face conflict with a coworker, a spouse, or a friend. The trend is to retreat rather than talk. Or just send a text message. Maybe unfriend or unfollow them on social media outlets to avoid them altogether. I used to believe that conflict avoidance was a personality trait, but I’ve come to believe it is more of a reflection of an underdeveloped social skill called communication.
Social awkwardness and anxiety have become a growing epidemic. At any dinner party, you would be hard-pressed not to find a one-upper (you know this guy; for every story you tell, he has a bigger and better one), conflict avoider, passive-aggressive commenter, a know-it-all, and simply a nonlistener.
Here’s the thing: technology is here to stay and will probably only increase in its cultural veracity. I’m thankful for the improvements technology has made, especially in spreading the gospel. Thanks to the Internet, I get to teach classes for a college in Kenya that trains and equips pastors all over that beautiful country. Thus far in my life, this is one of the most rewarding things I have been a part of. If it wasn’t for the web, getting these pastors the resources they need or the ability for them to send me their papers and projects to be graded would take weeks rather than seconds.
I’m not here to tell you to throw your phones and computers away and move to the mountains of Idaho and live as mountain people (although if you’ve never been to Idaho, you don’t know what you’re missing). Rather, I’m suggesting we relearn how to engage with one another by listening, talking, and caring for others in spite of our growing trend toward disengagement. Perhaps we can use technology for efficiency rather than letting technology use us.
Empathy in Action
The first warm day of spring was begging me to go outside and enjoy it and inaugurate the budding flowers and bursts of sunshine by going for a run. I laced up my running shoes, grabbed my phone and earphones, and ran out the door. Not sure if I was wrapped up in a world of chirping birds or the feeling of the warm sun beating on my shoulders that I had missed for months, but all I know is I wasn’t paying attention to the road I was running on and fell in a pothole. I managed to break my fall (not gracefully, I’m sure), but my phone went flying in the air, as if in slow motion, and landed face down on a rock. “Please, Lord. Please, Lord,” was the only thing I could get out of my mouth as I walked over to pick up the phone and survey the damage. All you iPhone owners know the rest of this story. As I picked up the phone and turned it around . . . yep . . . shattered screen. I couldn’t even touch the screen without shards of glass cutting my finger. A new phone was inevitable.
Two weeks later, I was leading a missions team to New York City. We had fed the homeless and worked all day in a warehouse store that gives away food, clothes, and other household items to people in need in the community. I was leading these young students all over New York on the subway and showing them the sights of the Big Apple. One afternoon I had put my new phone in my back pocket. When I went to use the restroom, I forgot where my phone was. Phone. Toilet. End of story. Another phone bites the dust.
A few weeks after my trip to New York (I am not making this up), I was enjoying a beautifully warm day in a boat on a lake doing what I love to do: wake-surf. If I could be a professional anything, I would want to be a professional wake surfer. It is my favorite hobby ever. All my friends on the boat that day were laughing, listening to music, and watching my brother-in-law wake-surf as I was capturing all the moments by videoing it on my phone, live for Periscope (Is that app still a thing?). Anyway, I was showing the world (I think I had maybe ten followers on Periscope) what a wonderful time my friends and I were having, when all of the sudden, the rope being used to pull the surfer to the boat hit my hand that was holding my phone. And plop. Water. Phone. Bye. There went my phone to the bottom of the Cascade Lake.
All three phones were goners. Thank goodness for insurance. (Always get the insurance for your phone.) Each time I sheepishly walked in the Apple Store to explain my embarrassing reasons for needing a new phone (the New York City toilet was the worst), the Apple employee always made me feel understood and seemed genuinely sorry for the inconvenience and was willing to help—even if it took four hours.
When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple in 1976 in Jobs’s parents’ garage, no one would have believed it would become one of the world’s leading companies in technology. In the early 1980s, Mike Markkula, one of the first investors in Apple and a close acquaintance of Jobs, wrote a memo, “The Apple Marketing Philosophy,” that is now considered the DNA of Apple. The first point in the memo was empathy. Markkula stressed the importance of understanding the needs and feelings of customers. “We will truly understand their needs better than any other company,” he wrote.
This emphasis on empathy has continued over the many decades of Apple’s success. And today the Genius Bar employees (like the ones who helped me three separate times with my phones) are taken through training. The Genius Training Student Workbook teaches each employee how to understand each customer’s needs and how to make each person happy.VI
The manual reiterates the word empathy over and over and encourages employees to implement the “three F’s” (“feel, felt, and found”) when identifying with a customer’s need.
“I see how you feel.”
“I would have felt the same way”
“I think I have found a solution.”
What Apple is genius at (no pun intended) is recognizing and understanding how the customer feels right away. You are far more likely to keep swiping that credit card at a store that makes you feel understood.
Apple isn’t the only company making empathy a part of its business philosophy. Ford Motor Company is also leading the way in exercising empathy. This is only fitting since founder Henry Ford once famously said, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, many companies are recognizing the need for empathy and are implementing empathy training for their employees. CEOs and executives are learning the great need for listening to understand.
Ford Motor Company is one these companies. It started having its male engineers wear an “empathy belly” with a stimulator that mimics pregnancy symptoms such as bladder pressure, extra weight, and even back pain. They do all this with the hope that they can better understand the needs of this specific customer and how that can be reflected in the engineering of Ford automobiles. Ford has also done a similar experiment with “age suits” to better relate to the needs of aging customers, with such issues as blurry vision and stiff joints.VII These practices have helped the engineers to understand the challenges some drivers experience. One of the changes that is believed to be influenced by empathy training has been easier automatic adjustments of the driver’s seat.
If the corporate world is recognizing the need to exercise empathy training, we should as well. What if we implemented empathy training in our own everyday, ordinary lives? We could just as easily implement Apple’s three F’s or Ford’s Empathy Belly in our lives.
For some people, empathy is just more natural; for the rest of us, I’m very grateful that empathy can be partly trained.
P.S. I’m very happy and quite proud to report that I haven’t had to get a new iPhone in well over a year now. Knock on wood. But if I did, I’m pretty confident that those Apple employees would show me some empathy.
I. Roman Krznaric, Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (New York: Penguin Random House, 2014), 21.
II. Ibid., 21–22.
III. Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathetic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (New York: Penguin, 2009), 177.
IV. Krznaric, Empathy, 27.
V. Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin Press, 2015), 21.
VI. Sam Biddle, How to Be a Genius: This Is Apple’s Secret Employee Training Manual (2012), http://gizmodo.com/5938323/how-to-be-a-genius-this-is-apples-secret-employee-training-manual.
VII. Joann S. Lublin, “Companies Try a New Strategy: Empathy Training,” Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/companies-try-a-new-strategy-empathy-1466501403.
Table of Contents
Foreword Judah Smith ix
Chapter 1 Sympathy versus Empathy 11
Chapter 2 Andre Agassi 37
Chapter 3 Grief 49
Chapter 4 The Theology of Empathy 63
Chapter 5 Who Is My Neighbor? 81
Chapter 6 Compassion Fatigue 99
Chapter 7 The Art of Forgiveness 121
Chapter 8 What to Say, What Not to Say 135
Chapter 9 Generous Mercy 149
Chapter 10 The Language of Your Heart 171