Forbes magazine recently noted that “the word for 2021 will be empathy.” Given the global events during the opening week of January alone, their prediction couldn’t be more poignant.
As the Covid pandemic continues to see people locked inside, as mental health issues spike and suicide levels fly ever higher, and as extreme political division has seen some of our world’s most famous icons, neighborhoods and even national buildings pulled apart by rioters, our society is facing an intersection of mass segregation. Today we are seeing the weakest of mutual human kindness that we have arguably ever seen, and we are facing an empathy deficit that has been slowly growing for three decades and now has clearly raised its deeply disruptive head. There has never been a time when we need more understanding and cohesion as a society than now, and a reversal of the empathy deficit should be at the top of our political, social and business agendas as we face the year ahead.
As human beings, we emote before we reason. For many years we chose to believe that we are primarily rational beings, but as the pandemic has continued to deepen its grasp, it is our emotional responses that have had the most impact on our health, our businesses and our relationships.
Anger, fear, anxiety, desperation, panic, aggression. Emotions that change the way we connect to each other and to what extent we are able to build and maintain relationships and yes, our social balance. The stronger and more consistent these negative emotions become, the less empathy we see in the world. And after 30 years of declining levels, before this pandemic, we are now on a knife edge as social unrest and economic dismay appear to progress hand in hand. Despite an intellectual desire to respond to the challenges at hand with unshakeable calm, courage and optimism, it is our natural human responses that are driving the state of society and the picture is blurring more as each day passes. 2021 must become the year empathy goes mainstream if we are to bring social connection, cohesion and communication to the fore.
While empathy has been recognized as increasingly important in recent years it is these extended turbulent times, when fear runs consistently high, that the recognition of its power has been elevated to a new level of conversation organizationally and socially. From an evolutionary point of view human beings do better when they are together. In order to continue to offer the resilience and endurance to face another year of challenge, people subconsciously demand a far higher level of mutual connectivity. The most fundamental human need, to be ‘seen’ and to be ‘heard,’ is elevated as the human race is challenged over such an extended period. As leaders, as parents, as politicians and as healthcare workers we need to recognize this human fundamental in our path to recovery.
This can be easier said than done. When we are in 'survival' mode, the self—a more ego centric, protectionist and introverted focus—takes over, and we find it far harder to activate the parts of the brain responsible for empathy. Research also shows that people will cognitively turn off empathy when they feel like they are unable to help someone, or respond, in the way they ideally want to. However, the ability to connect empathically with others—to feel with them, to care about their well-being, and to act with understanding—is critical to our society. In fact, it is fundamental to the human race.
Low empathy in society results in higher levels of disconnect, bias, segregation and depression as well as impacting a host of negative physical symptoms. The good news is that research has proven time and again that far from being an immutable trait, empathy can be developed and improved. Empathy is a choice, a skillset and a data set.
Now it the time to train at large. To elevate our understanding of this deficit of humanity’s greatest leadership trait, and how its absence is impacting our world. Emotional management, and specifically our empathy for each other, is simultaneously one of the greatest challenges and greatest opportunities for the year ahead.
Children enter our world predisposed to empathy. We use it, or lose it as we grow up depending on whether our societal environment welcomes it or ignores it. This is a conversation and a skillset that we are allowing to slide when the world around us needs it more than any other of our natural human abilities. Our empathy is inborn but our decision to use it will change the path of 2021. It will be a gift of immense power that each of us alone can choose to give back to our country and our planet at large.
Mimi Nicklin is the author of Softening the Edge—Empathy: How Humanity's Oldest Leadership Trait is Changing Our World