Why Empathy Matters

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Humans are a communal species.  Our biology is such that it takes many years for our young to mature and become capable of true independence from their family (though our teenagers may debate the length of this time!).   We typically depend on one another, even as adults, for essential goods and services.   In addition, the intensity of mutual dependence was even stronger in earlier human history – when individuals were entirely dependent on their social group for food, basic shelter and safety.  At that time, if a person was banned from the group for some reason, they were unlikely to survive.  Given that survival was dependent on good social relationships, our brains evolved with a developed sensitivity to interpersonal relationships.  

It is not surprising then to learn that research has found ‘mirror neurons’ that light up in our brains when we observe someone feeling anger, sadness, etc. – just the same way they light up if we are having this feeling directly.  Jeremy Rifkin makes a very compelling argument (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g) that this is further evidence that humans evolved to be caring, social beings.  He says: “we are soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we were experiencing it ourselves.”  In fact, he and many others have argued that humans are not wired for aggression and self-interest, but rather for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship the first human need is the need for ‘belonging.’ 

While lack of harmony with your group is no longer as dangerous – the wiring in our brains have not changed much.  People have a deep need to feel ‘accepted’ and like ‘they belong’ as this probably brings reassurance to that part of the brain that is wired to be worried about risks in becoming an outcast.  When you feel those around you truly understand you –you feel much more reassured that you ‘belong.’  In the reverse situation, if you feel others don’t really ‘get you’ – this can lead to anxiety about not really belonging – or not being accepted – a stress that is more intense if the group whom you feel does not understand you is your family!

Empathy and genuine understanding of one another is critical to a well-functioning society and certainly essential in a family.  In the context of a family owning a business together, if an individual does not feel true acceptance from the others it can make collaboration and cooperation almost impossible.

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