The Empathy Lab: Hurt So Good
I admit it. I am 100% here for the new Tay Swift music video: Calm Down. I love everything about it – the bright candy colors, the incredible cast, with a bouncy bright message about love for all. I felt like I was watching a fabulously over the top pep rally for the team that was so obviously going to win. I felt proud, smug and damn self-righteous. But as T-Swift herself says (to paraphrase) in the video – throwing shade doesn’t change anyone’s mind. Portraying the ‘other side’ as feeble-minded and unwashed might simply serve (and I am speculating here) to create a deeper rift and a bigger divide. It felt a little, well, tone deaf.
There is an oft-used proverb, usually referred to as a curse, that goes something like ‘May you live in interesting times’. And most certainly, we are. The whole world feels under attack, and the upheaval and massive swells of uncertainty we are forced to surf through daily have created a sense of desperation for many. Nuance and thoughtfulness in our everyday discourse have been eroded under the constant blaring of Mayday alarms. And unfortunately, in times of extreme danger, the foremost human tendency is to cling to the strongest and sturdiest things we can find. (I am reminded, here, of that classic children’s book “The Cay”, where a young blind boy is lashed to a palm tree by his elderly friend and fellow survivor, Timothy. It was the only means of survival to ride out the massive hurricane consuming the island they were stranded on.) Right now we are tightly tied to our singular belief systems, and no one feels safe enough to climb down.
There is a new word being used in organizations to help us make our way out of our own pain caves, and into the parlor of modernity. It’s empathy. Empathy, of course, is the ability to truly feel another’s situation, to understand physically and intuitively, the emotions and sensations of another. Interestingly enough, in a world increasingly driven by data points, the study of empathy has become big business. Google has founded an Empathy Lab, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella has prioritized empathy at work, as have other technology giants liked LinkedIn, Netflix and Apple. It seems the closer we get to recreating human thinking (AI) the need to study and understand the messier world of human emotion becomes even more paramount. For how do we create machines that understand us if we don’t first understand ourselves? What are the subconscious thoughts and deeply ingrained struggles and pain points that drive our decisions? The study of empathy is really the recognition of pain, and its real work is to foster an awareness of its causes and effects.
Invisibilia, a terrific NPR podcast, recently aired a segment on pain, the physical kind, in an episode called The Fifth Vital Sign. In this episode, we learn of a physician’s success in having pain recognized in the medical field as a key sign of life. What fascinated me even more, however, was a line from the episode that referred to the condition of pain on the part of the interviewer. She described her own pain as “pushing away the voice of the subject,” “so what he was describing was muted and distant – like someone talking through a wall. Pain is easy to dismiss in other people, but our own pain holds us in a vise.” To put it another way – Pain prevents us from really hearing. And this is the real challenge of today. People are the products of their pain, both emotional and physical. We make decisions based on prior pain, and on the perception of imminent pain, both physical and emotional. Pain is deeply subjective, and incredibly universal. Pain is the reason people flee countries, walking hundreds of miles in the sun and also the reason people abuse opioids. Pain encourages people to buy sports cars, and purses. It traps us in bad behavior. From loneliness to bullying, pain is the driver. And we have all experienced it in some form, in some way.
If every person is locked in some soundproof chamber of personal pain, then no one is listening – no one is capable. The key, then, to finding some path to open dialogue and communication might be to start with acknowledging this, and to start by sharing what hurts.Dr. Helen Reiss, head of empathy and relational science at Mass General, speaks about the critical need for human beings to really see and respond to each other’s pain. She says in her Ted Talk “Every human being has a longing to be seen, understood and appreciated. “ Her own work with her own patients revealed huge swings in what she thought she was hearing, and what was really being said. Her personal experiences were coloring what she heard her patients saying, as if some incompetent translator was hard at work. This revelation has led her to create empathy trainings for doctors around the world. These programs are based on the belief that when doctors are trained to see, hear, focus and follow subtle cues, the patient feels better, heals faster and is happier with his or her treatment. And it works. So maybe this is the place to start then – with where it hurts. Maybe every organization that hopes to connect with humans, needs to begin this process of learning to hear emotion. The human condition is both messy and fragile and incredibly unique; thus, the saving grace of empathy.
Our scar tissue is what connects us, and might just be the map to a kinder, gentler world.
I’ll show you mine, if you’ll show me yours.