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Monday, March 23, 2020

The Importance of Empathy

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There’s a lack of emotional involvement in an email

As the coronavirus pandemic pushes people toward increased social isolation, millions of workers are attending meetings remotely, municipalities are conducting open meetings online, and schools are shifting to online platforms. In fact, the video conferencing platform, WebEx, saw a surge in user activity since the beginning of March – 5.5 billion meeting minutes, or 3.2 million meetings globally.

This trend was already growing, long before this most recent Chinese virus became pandemic. Remote work has grown almost 200% since 2005. The CEO of Zoom (another video conference platform) said recently, “I truly believe in the future, everyone will [use] video for remote worker collaboration.”

And while meeting or working remotely may be necessary in the short-term, is this good for mankind in the long-term?

A study published in the 2014 issue of Computers in Human Behavior found that digital media diminished children’s ability to read other people’s emotions. In fact, sixth-graders who went five days without exposure to technology were “significantly better at reading human emotions” than kids who had regular access to smartphones, televisions and computers.

The importance of empathy, or this emotional capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing, should not be underestimated. In fact, in a recent survey of over 10,000 students in 35 middle and high schools across the country, researchers found wherever students exhibited greater empathy, there were also fewer experiences of bullying, and the students in those schools were more likely to intervene and stop any bullying, as well.

Generally speaking, those who have a higher degree of empathy also have a higher level of concern for the rights, feelings and welfare of others. We begin to humanize one another when we empathize and are more willing to hear one another to resolve the conflicts between us. Some say much of the cruelty and mean-spiritedness in our society can be traced back to the erosion of empathy.

The good news, though, is that empathy is not something predestined in our DNA. Actually, psychologists says we are not born with this skill, we develop it. And like most skills – we must practice them to get better.

Having the majority of our conversations take place behind a screen, or while our faces are buried in our phones, however, isn’t improving that skill at all. No, not in the least bit.

But it’s necessary, certainly. Want to ask your manager for a raise and need to tell what type of mood he or she is in? If you’re making a sales pitch to a customer, ever need to figure out whether your message is resonating with them or if they are growing disinterested? Or what about all the marriages that break down due to poor communication because one spouse doesn’t understand or feel what the other spouse is experiencing?

Part of the issue is how we’re “wired” as human beings. For example, you can’t see body language via email or on a conference call, but 93% of all communication is body language, according to a study from UCLA. This includes eye contact, body language and posture.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this principle was in 1960, in the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Previously, debates had only been broadcast over the radio. Turns out, whether you watched this debate on television or listened to it on the radio, it made a difference regarding which candidate you thought won.

People who listened to the debate (on the radio) were more likely to believe that Nixon had won, but those who watched the debate (on television) were more likely to believe that Kennedy had done better. Why? Well, JFK presented an image of being young and able, while Nixon seemed uncomfortable and was sweating profusely.

Again, 93% of all communication is body language – and that’s a lot to keep up with – a lot more emotional involvement than an email or Facebook post or expressing our feelings with emoticons or excessive punctuation (like the grammatically unnecessary, but enthusiastic and popular “!!!” or “???” punctuation).

This may be why it feels easier to interact with others through a screen, especially when we’re tired or drained. There’s none of the body language for us to contend with when texting or emailing. No need to be constantly aware of whomever you’re communicating with, or to be so focused on the conversation that you can’t be browsing the web, preparing dinner, paying bills online and conversing with someone else in the same room with you, all at the same time.

Yes, these are certainly unprecedented times we are living in, but when this crisis has passed and social distancing has diminished, we must take that opportunity to sharpen our skills to better understand one another, not so much from behind a screen, but front and center, and in the moment.

Albert Einstein once said, “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

If that happens, we’ll have a pandemic of a different kind on our hands.

And who has time for that?

Louis R. Avallone is a Shreveport businessman, attorney and author of “Bright Spots, Big Country, What Makes America Great.” He is also a former aide to U.S. Representative Jim McCrery and editor of The Caddo Republican. His columns have appeared regularly in 318 Forum since 2007. Follow him on Facebook, on Twitter @louisravallone or by e-mail at louisavallone@mac.com, and on American Ground Radio at 101.7FM and 710 AM, weeknights from 6 - 7 p.m., and streaming live on keelnews.com.

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