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Sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the phrase anomie to describe a destabilized and destabilizing state when rules and rule givers lose legitimacy. It’s what we feel when we face a virus that plays by one set of rules, politicians who play by another, and a professional life that proceeds independent of each — and when we face all of this in social isolation.
Empathy can help us navigate this period of anomie. Here are four Empathy Rules that can help us cut across the divisions in our lives and build a sense of community.
Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s problem in the hopes of understanding, of bridging a gap. It helps us feel in community, not abandoned to anomic isolation. It helps us feel seen and known for who we are.
Empathy at the workplace is both rewarding and time-consuming to listen to other people without preconception. Business consultants sometimes suggest something that seems close enough: radical candor.
A continual round-robin of criticism and praise promises to dissolve the boundaries between colleagues. But this truth-telling practice proceeds from the feeling: “I know you.”
Real empathy starts from a different premise, radical humility: “I don’t know how you feel, but I’m here to listen.”
Those who think that work is not the “place” for empathy miss the point. The empathy you receive at work makes you a better friend, partner, or parent. The empathy you receive at home makes you better able to listen at work. And there, empathic leadership makes room for intimacy and honesty, driving innovation and engagement. If you open yourself to empathy, you’re allowing yourself to listen across differences. Empathy keeps us from discounting, dismissing, or even cancelling others.
You can’t put yourself into someone else’s situation if you have preconceptions about its contours. We’re trained to relate to others by expressing what we think we share with them: “Oh, you lost your job. I know how tough that is; I lost mine as well!”
It’s the opposite — the strategy of not knowing — that leaves you open to the truth of things.
Step back and recognize that you don’t necessarily know what someone else is thinking or feeling. Stop, look, listen, and stay open. It’s not what you know, it’s what you’re willing to learn that provides space for empathy.
Empathy doesn’t start with a reassuring “I’m like you.” On the contrary, empathy accepts friction. Colleagues may have profound disagreements, just like family members, neighbours, and friends.
Empathy is not about being conflict-averse — it’s noisy because people are. To be empathetic, we must be willing to get in there, own the conflict, and learn how to fight fair. It’s about full engagement, even when it is uncomfortable.
Empathy implies that you will do the work necessary to comprehend not just the place the person is coming from but their problem. It’s a discipline of basic respect, both personal and civic. You have a stake in helping your neighbour make things better. You can’t get bored or turn away.
Empathy isn’t altruistic. It enlarges those who offer it and binds them to others. It fights anomie. If you’ve been heard, and the rules you’ve been asked to follow take your situation into account, you feel part of something larger than yourself.
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