How to get better at empathy despite practicing social distancing

Isolation and empathy are by no means mutually exclusive.

Photo by Polina Zimmerman via Pexels
  • As we began prepping for isolation at home, there was a strange sense of disassociation, as if there was no need to think of or care for others and that it was everyone for themselves.
  • The pandemic, interestingly enough, put many of us in a situation of "forced empathy."
  • In reality, we are all "first responders" in the need for empathy, as countless anecdotes about inspiring acts of compassion during the pandemic attest.

It was mid-March when most of us realized that whether or not we contracted COVID-19, our lives were about to change pretty dramatically. As we began prepping for a retreat into our "bubbles" to ride it out, there was a strange sense of disassociation.

It was as if the looming isolation meant there was no need to think of or care for others, that it was everyone for themselves.

We saw this play out with the panicked hoarding of essential supplies, and the way we avoided each other's eyes at the grocery store. We went into this thinking we had to take care of ourselves and our families first, and to an extent that was true. We do need to take responsibility for ourselves.

Yet I've come to realize in recent weeks that the exact opposite reaction, which we can see taking place around the world as well, is one of the most striking features of the pandemic. Isolation and empathy are by no means mutually exclusive. In fact, if we had acted with more empathy from the start, it's possible that humanity could have dramatically changed the outcome.

Forced solitude calls for empathy

As we retreated, we became isolated. And isolation breeds loneliness, reason enough to act with more empathy.

Emily Cross, a professor of Social Robotics at Macquarie University, and Anna Henschel, PhD candidate in Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow, cite brain scan studies that show subcortical regions being activated differently depending on whether we receive pleasurable or stressful sensations.

"When we feel lonely and rejected, brain regions associated with distress and rumination are activated," the two recently pointed out in The Conversation. "Lonely people also have a more negative focus and anxiously scrutinise people's intentions. Sometimes this can become so strong that it makes us feel even more lonely – creating a vicious cycle."

Social media can help break this cycle, but often has the exact opposite effect. Cross and Henschel believe that much of the reinforced loneliness caused by social media can be traced back to the lack of all-important non-verbal cues, such as a facial expressions and body language. "These allow us to gauge the tone and context of a social encounter," they asserted. "When this information is missing, we perceive fewer friendly cues from others."

I see this every day on social media, as the "middle ground" is shouted down by the strident voices on either side of political divides. While armed protesters rail against harried lawmakers and exhausted healthcare workers, I think the majority of us are a bit stunned by what brought us to this place.

The pandemic, interestingly enough, put many of us in a situation of "forced empathy," as Eve Fairbanks recently explained in The New Republic. After traveling internationally and reporting symptoms consistent with COVID-19, she underwent testing then waited four days for her (negative) results.

"No individual can control a virus, despite what the president might wish," she wrote. "But before I got tested—the current state of millions of Americans—I felt helpless over not only my own fate but also the fate of all the others I might have infected. It's a rare thing to feel a stranger's potential pain so intimately."

This is why so many of us consent to wearing masks; we aren't necessarily protecting ourselves but protecting others from possible infection. It's forced empathy, and for many, it feels strangely rewarding to act on it.

Born empathic or learned behavior?

True empaths already know what it feels like to be keenly aware of other people's needs, stresses, and feelings. In times of widespread stress and anxiety, this can have some significant drawbacks, noted Jonathan Fields, producer of the critically acclaimed Good Life Project podcast.

"When someone else is in pain, it can be hard to dissociate from it," Fields recently wrote in Psychology Today. "Whether you know them or not. It can also stop you from being able to help someone else. You're of no use beyond being a warm body to commiserate, when their pain paralyzes you as much as them."

Yet he believes that "to feel is to live," and we must stay mindful to avoid being drawn in too deeply to others pain, to the point where we are no longer able to help.

The payoff? Being more empathetic doesn't just help others; it has personal benefits, noted Elizabeth Segal, PhD, in Psychology Today. Segal believes empathy can:

  • Help us make better decisions
  • Connect us more deeply to others
  • Lower stress
  • Provide antidotes to burnout
  • Guide our moral compass

"Empathy is a foundation for the moral behaviors that create healthier communities, from which all of us benefit," she wrote.

We can learn to show more empathy toward others, and this pandemic gives us a perfect "training ground" if you will. It all starts with simple steps that anyone can master:

  • Engage in acts of service
  • Observe others acting with empathy
  • Listen to others, without the need to insert your own opinion
  • Actively imagine yourself in another's position

Taking a leadership role in the move toward empathy

In reality, we are all "first responders" in the need for empathy, as countless anecdotes about inspiring acts of compassion during the pandemic attest. I was particularly touched by the story of a Tennessee man who, worried about his mother and others in her retirement community, brought his guitar and serenaded residents outside their windows.

We see others leading with empathy around the globe. Italians signing to each other from their balconies; kids in the U.S. mowing their neighbor's lawns; volunteers sewing thousands and thousands of face masks for health care workers.

Unfortunately, we also see plenty of people who are most definitely not getting this right. As CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger reminded us at the end of March, President Trump gives us a prime example of self-centeredness and a distinct lack of empathy. "By tweeting a New York Times story about the millions of viewers his evening news conferences attract, the President made one thing clear: In his mind, it's all about him," Borger wrote.

On the other hand, we see leaders like New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern lead with empathy first. "People feel that Ardern 'doesn't preach at them; she's standing with them,'" Helen Clark, New Zealand's prime minister from 1999 to 2008, told Uri Friedman of The Atlantic.

Ardern video chats with her nation from her remote location, dressed down and with her children's toys often visible in the background. She is authentic and real, even apologizing for using the national emergency alert sirens to get out the shelter-in-place message.

And her country is responding. Out of a population of nearly 5 million, only 20 people have died from the virus as of early May, thanks in large part to willing compliance with widespread testing and quarantining mandates. Her empathetic approach has no doubt saved lives.

Stop looking for empathy, and start delivering it

We must stop looking for empathy (even if we wish our own political leadership cared more about us than their election prospects) and begin delivering it. Dan Kerber, VP of Business Operations for Ericsson, wrote a beautiful piece on how we can lead our teams with empathy during this stressful time. He stresses the importance of treating our employees with kindness and basic humanity:

  • We can be flexible with schedules and more understanding of workers who are home with kids.
  • We can help our teams set boundaries on their working time, not expecting them to answer in their off hours.
  • We can welcome their family members into the conversation, not being phased if the little ones toddle into the room or the cat jumps up on the keyboard.
  • We can make sure they have the resources and support they need to continue working and stay mentally healthy.

Eventually we can carry this attitude forward as we come out of this pandemic. In all of this, the prevailing questions for business leaders might be "How can I help?"

We will all come out of this changed in some way. We get to decide if those changes will be made intentionally, or forced on us by our circumstances. Let's choose wisely, and bring a more empathetic mindset with us.

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