How Empathy Helps Inclusion

Amy Cuddy, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, Susan Fiske, professor of public affairs at Princeton University and Peter Glick, professor of psychology at Lawrence University did a study in 2008 that looked at sources of bias.

Their findings showed that the first thing people size up in others is warmth. Can this person be trusted, tolerated, a friend and sincere?

Folks who fell in the low warmth category included public assistance recipients, the homeless, the poor, the affluent, Muslims and Jews.

Folks who landed in the high warmth group encompassed senior citizens, people with birth defects, disabled persons; stay at home moms, the middle class and Christians.

It is obvious that our colleagues who landed in the low warmth classification comprise our out group. Those that don’t look like us, talk like us or act like us. In other words, they represent things and people we move away from. They don’t fit into our past histories or experiences. They upset our comfort levels since they challenge our preconceived notions of the world.

How can we be more inclusive of people and things we don’t warm up to? How can we be more curious about their differences? After all, don’t their differences matter just as much as our differences? How can we get into their world and see how those differences make sense to them even though they may not make sense to us?

The secret sauce to being inclusive is empathy. The ability to temporarily transcend your own perspective by looking at differences in a non-judgmental way. It is what feminist Gloria Steinem calls the most radical of human emotions.

Empathy is not walking in another person’s shoes. Empathy is not matching someone else’s experience but matching their emotions. For example, have you ever listened to someone describe an experience that you had a hard time connecting with. I have a friend who loves to hunt. To hear him tell it, it is the ultimate thrill for a hunter when they nail their prey. For me, this is a haunting story as I start to identify with the animal that just lost their life and not my friend.

As I educated myself on empathy, I realized I was listening to my friend’s hunting stories all wrong. I was trying to match his experience as opposed to his emotions. When he spun his latest hunting sequel, I started thinking about blissful experiences that I have encountered in my life. Once I reoriented myself to matching his emotions rather than the actual hunting incidents, I gained a new appreciation of his happiness even though I disagreed with his favorite hobby.

Imagine how different we would react to people and things that are different from us if we match emotions rather than experiences. This process allows us to not only feel each other’s happiness but to connect with our neighbor’s pain.

The path toward inclusion goes through the door of empathy: (1) Identify the other person’s emotion; (2) Recall a time when you felt the same way; (3) What did you need in that situation and (4) What does the other person need.

Master this gift my friends and you will help create a more compassionate, caring and collaborative world where everyone can be trusted, their differences recognized and embraced and their potential fully realized.

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