Look to the Future: Increase your empathy

Written on May 25, 2015 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies

santiagoBy Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean of IE Business School and President of IE University

Writing at a time when science seemed to promise a solution to all of humanity’s problems, H.G. Wells was fascinated by the question of how technology would affect mankind’s behavior in the coming centuries. In his 1924 novel Men Like Gods (1), a collection of middle-Englanders suddenly find themselves transported through time and space to Utopia, a society much more technologically and culturally advanced than that of early 20th century Britain. This is a place whose inhabitants have long ago left behind “the days of confusion”, a time of social and political upheaval, interrupted by constant wars and characterized by social inequality and rampant individualism—a place not much different that we find ourselves in a century later.

The reason Utopia is so peaceful a society is that its inhabitants have developed their empathy to such a degree that they are now able to communicate non-verbally. In one particularly amusing scene in Wells’ book, the Utopians attempt to explain to their new guests, via telepathy, their history and customs. But not all are able to “hear” what is being said, and some are even left completely in silence. Among the few who pick up everything they are being told is a character called Barnstaple, and the reason is simple: he is among the few of his peers who unthinkingly makes the connection between his own experiences and knowledge and that of his hosts. In other words, he is naturally empathetic.

Empathy is the capacity to identify and respond to the feelings of others. Neuroscience and psychology have established that empathy, just like all intellective faculties, is physiologically rooted in our brains. It’s hard-wired. Furthermore, the brain’s plasticity allows us to adapt it and to train it through certain exercises and habits, not just in the first years of our lives, but into adulthood. Daniel Goleman’scelebrated book, Emotional Intelligence (2) lists several experiments that support this. The roots of empathy are not just genetic, but also cultural.

The point Wells is making is that it is only through knowledge and education that different cultures and civilisations can overcome the barrier of communication (let’s not forget he was writing less than a decade after the slaughter of World War I and a time of upheaval throughout Europe). Ignorance, he argued, and I would agree, is the biggest obstacle to understanding between us, and particularly those from other cultures.

This is a principle that the Utopians have embedded in their society. Their education system is so sophisticated that they do not need governments or other power systems. Life in Utopia is based on the “five principles of Liberty”: privacy; free movement, unlimited knowledge; truth; and the freedom to discuss and criticise. Having reached this advanced stage of intellectual development, conflict is resolved through reason, which has won out over the Utopians’ earlier, more basic instincts.

Now, while I certainly believe in the transformative power of knowledge and education, my intention here is not to speculate on whether we could ever aspire to a society like H.G. Wells was describing. But what I do believe is that we can strengthen the relationship between education and empathy, which would certainly help promote better understanding between people. What’s more, I think that cultivating our empathy can even heighten our receptiveness to other people’s needs and wants: call it telepathy if you like, the point is to help us all communicate better. I am sure you’ve heard somebody say that there are moments with their partner, their friends, or even their boss when neither needs to say anything, and that a look or a gesture is enough—it may even have happened to you.

Empathy is essential for success in relationships, at work, in the family, and with friends and acquaintances. It allows us to know and understand other people’s feelings, not just through conversation, but by interpreting non-verbal forms of expression through gestures, body language, and other signs. Most children, from an early age, show empathy by copying the mood of those around them, for example by crying when they hear other children cry, or laughing when their peers are laughing. As we get older, we feel sorry when our family members are unhappy, or pleasure when things go well for them.

Similarly, in The Empathic Civilisation, Jeremy Rifkin argues that it is precisely our relationships with other people that gives meaning to our lives: “Empathy conjures up active engagement — the willingness of an observer to become part of another’s experience, to share the feeling of that experience.” For Rifkin, humanity has by now reached a degree of empathy and biosphere-wide consciousness thanks to wireless and cellular technology that we can now connect with anybody anywhere on the planet, regardless of linguistic or cultural barriers. This will lead to a system of what he calls distributed capitalism that will allow us to collectively solve the major problems facing humanity such as climate change or pandemics, and that will be focused on improving the quality of our lives and in working together rather than competing.

Rifkin’s book includes many examples of how empathy between individuals and groups has overcome conflict and misunderstanding. He cites the famous incident during World War I when German and Allied soldiers facing each other across the trenches called a truce on Christmas Day 1914, meeting in no-man’s land to exchange gifts and share photographs of loved ones. True, the generals soon put an end to the fraternising, but the event showed how collective empathy between people in close physical contact was able, albeit briefly, to overcome confrontation.

There are still many in management who believe in Machiavelli’s dictum, outlined in The Prince, that it is better to be feared than loved (4), but I believe that one of the essential characteristics of leadership is knowing how to cultivate empathy with one’s colleagues and subordinates. Empathy motivates people and helps them understand and share an organisation’s missions. What’s more, it improves productivity.

As US academic Jason Boyers pointed out in an article a couple of years ago: “Though the concept of empathy might contradict the modern concept of a traditional workplace—competitive, cutthroat, and with employees climbing over each other to reach the top— the reality is that for business leaders to experience success, they need to not just see or hear the activity around them, but also relate to the people they serve.” (5)

We may not be able to aspire yet to Utopia, but here’s what H.G. Wells might have recommended the business leaders of the 21st century do to cultivate a little more empathy around them.

– An optimistic and constructive attitude is fundamental. I’m talking here about optimism tempered by realism, not the dreams that people are likely to dismiss or turn away from. A sense of humor, one of the optimism’s sisters, is also a good idea, and can help generate intimacy, a good atmosphere, and a positive spirit in the workplace. Given how much time we spend at work over a lifetime, it’s very convenient to enjoy ourselves there.

– We should take the time and interest to know more about our colleagues and subordinates: what their worries are, whether they have family problems or are faced with illness. Equally, let’s find out what makes them tick, how they amuse themselves outside of work. A simple but rewarding practice is to send a birthday card.

– Passion for what we do, for the organisation and its goals also generates empathy, because passion is contagious. Enjoying our time at work and thinking constantly about how to improve on what we do inspires others to take the same approach.

– Be trustworthy and predictable, project reliability, and don’t allow yourself to be brought down by moods.

– Reading, particularly novels that give us insight into other people’s character or which portray realistic situations, or depict how people like us respond to the things life throws at us.

– In general, we should always be looking to learn new things, to be open to new ideas throughout our careers: this will better equip us to understand those around us, seeing life from different angles.

H.G. Wells was a far-sighted man, who understood that it would take humanity many centuries, if ever, before reason would overpower brute force. In the meantime, we can make our contribution to Utopia by trying to understand each other better and working to overcome our collective problems. In a word, empathy.


(1)Herbert George Wells, Men Like Gods (Ferris Printing Company: New York, 1923).


(2) Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Matters More than IQ (Bantham Books, Random House: New York 1995).

(3) Jeremy Rifkin: The Empathic Civilisation: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World of Crisis (Penguin: New York, 2009).

(4) Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. 17.

(5) Jason Boyers, Why Empathy Is The Force That Moves Business Forward, Forbes, 30/5/2013


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