Playing Favorites By Marshall Goldsmith There’s a reason I devote...
In other areas, cognitive empathy is the keen understanding that effective advertisers employ to create messaging that makes us want to buy their products, usually in ways we’re not aware of (they usually arrive at this through market research and product testing).
This type of manipulation, taken too far, calls up the dark side of the empathy of understanding. It’s how sinister political actors, understanding the biases and grievances of the citizenry, can sway people to create socio-political turmoil and revolution. It’s also a reminder that we humans have been underestimating empathy’s power, in all its forms, for centuries.
We also possess an empathy of feeling, that is, experiencing the emotional state of the other person.
This is the empathy we display when we replicate within ourselves the feeling of another person, usually to communicate to that person some variation of either “I feel your pain” or “I am happy for you.” It is a powerful force within us. Brain studies of people’s reactions to emotional events have shown that rabid sports fans in the United States can experience as intense a joy at seeing their football team score a touchdown as the joy felt by the player who actually scored the touchdown. It’s why we cry or laugh while watching movie characters whom we know are only being acted. When the character on screen is excited or scared, we are excited or scared. It’s why we are comforted by a medical doctor’s so-called bedside manner; through the doctor’s replication of what we’re feeling, we learn that we are not alone in our fear or suffering.
Parents may feel this form of empathy most intensely, not always with positive effect. I once asked my neighbor Jim, father of five, why he seemed downcast whenever I saw him. He said, “As a father, I can only be as happy as my least happy child.” That’s the risk that comes with the empathy of feeling. We can feel too much, to the point where we get lost in another’s pain and are hurting rather than helping ourselves as well as the object of our concern. We can reduce this particular risk, says the French empathy expert Hortense le Gentil, with a well-intended come-and-go strategy: “By all means, share the other person’s feelings,” she says, “but do not stay too long at the party. Join in and then get out.”