A Different Take on Empathy

April 20, 2011 — 14 Comments

There was a moment in the Civil War where Ulysses S Grant found his legs. Although he’d had experienced leading men into battle during the Mexican-American war, part of his early stumbles can be explained by fear. Or, at least, the anxiety that comes along with being uncertain of yourself. In July of 1861 he was sent to break up a notorious group of guerillas led by Gen. Tom Harris. Grant hemmed and hawed in his mindit wasn’t the fighting, it was the fighting as a colonel. If there was some way he could be the lieutenant-colonel, he later wrote, and someone else could be the colonel he’d  have been fine.

And so, racked with misapprehension, he marched his men on their mission. But when he arrived at the Harris’ camp it was empty. They enemy had left, knowing Grant was coming. Grant changed in this instant. His fears disappeared and did not return. Grant wrote later in his memoirs “it occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him…from that event to the close of the war…I never forgot that the enemy has as much reason to fear my forces as I had his.”

It’s probably a strange take on this, but such a realizationthe power you have over your opponentis deeply connected with empathy. It’s understanding and acknowledging that there is a world outside your predominant emotions. And that this is a logical world, one that is ripe with people who feel what you feel not because you are special and came to it first but because we are all the same.  In a perverted way, it’s very hubristic to think only you would feel fear in this situation. It is to deny, essentially, the enemy a sense of personhood or self. It is to assume that your emotions matter and nothing else doesor rather, that they do not even exist.

So I think you apply Grant’s realization to many parts of your life. The awkwardness of introducing yourself to strangers. Fighting with your girlfriend. Business negotiations. Selling a product. Taking a test. Pitching an idea. It’s not simply that you have something to do or say, there is another person who will be responding to you and that response is equally daunting. And you have to remember that well before the stage of being very attuned to others is the realization that those others exist. And the power that comes from taking that first step. Because most people don’t.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

14 responses to A Different Take on Empathy

  1. I really like this conception of empathy. Maybe it suggests that people who we often consider to be “self-conscious” or “shy” just lack empathy. To be crippled with shame all day over something I did might indicate that I haven’t imagined other people’s perspectives enough to realize that whatever I did that I thought was so embarrassing was, in their reality, trivial at most. They nodded, moved on (to dwell on shame of their own, perhaps).

    • Another way is to also remember that they were too busy thinking about themselves–wondering if they did something that you might judge–to be so consumed with analyzing what you did.

      You might also like the concept of the Imaginary Audience. It explains why kids are so prone to feeling embarrassed. They are CONVINCED that all eyes are on them. It’s a sort of juvenile hubris and I think empathy is part of growing out of it.

  2. I also think it’s important to understand what’s your unique perspective and your unique experience in certain situations. I used to think that people felt the same way that I did in most situations, only to realize that they weren’t thinking at all along the same lines. But for the most part, we tend to feel the same emotions in most situations.

  3. Amazing post. Highly useful way of thinking and defusing the fear that consumes us sometimes. But since we’re all the same, the other has knowledge of the position you are in and might already expect you to feel fear. This expectation alone can lead us to to feel fear when we might not have in the first place. For example, an individual confident in public speaking, if asked by somebody “Are you nervous?” might actually begin to feel nervous and self-conscious because of that. Anyway, I’m consistently enriched by your ideas and writing :)

  4. This is something that I have noticed often in myself recently. Recognition is however the easy part. Application of this realization is more difficult. In everyday life how does one adjust their thoughts/behavior to better acknowledge the humanity of others?

    • Recognition might be the easy part, but it also makes the application easier as well. In Grant’s example, it was almost a shock that the enemy had fled their camp because forgot to view Harris as a person similar to himself–that is, a man who feels fear. Had he done so, anticipating it as a possible reaction becomes almost difficult not to do.

      Take another example: selling something like a car. What’s funny about car salesmen is that they do a bad job of remembering that you want to say yes. After all, you are shopping for a car and that’s why you walk on the lot. They are so intent on telling you this and selling you that that they don’t stop and dig at the real critical variable: what is it that you need to hear to say “yes?” It would mean, in their case, really understanding you and your specific situation–putting aside their nervous and aggressive instincts to sell–and they’d do that being hearing what you have to say.

      So in my opinion, this take on empathy requires two things. First, acknowledging that you are not to only important variable in this equation (accepting the humanity of the other) and second, actually adjusting your plan of action around what you’ve learned about that other variable. Not just paying lip service to it but taking it truly into account.

  5. Hell of a new banner ya got there.

  6. Yeah, this is something I come back to again and again – what is on the mind of the person I’m dealing with? In fact, I often ask my 7-yr old that very question as we’re evaluating what’s going on his little social life. I don’t necessarily think it is empathy, though it can be if the next step is to relate to what is on the other person’s mind. The first step is simple awareness – that the other person has a mind, and then what might happen to be occupying it at any given moment. As you point out, lots of people have no ability to do this (or they simply don’t exercise it). This is a major handicap. I wrote about a temporary version of it a while back…

    http://enlightenedcaveman.com/2005/02/22/robitussin_and_the_gauche_theo/

    Good stuff, Ryan.

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