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January 20, 2010
What Prompts Empathy, and Why Not More of It?

A prime PR value is empathy, the ability to walk in someone else's shoes, experience how they are feeling, and respond accordingly. We've seen empathy expressed by the planeload and boatload, in worldwide media coverage, in all kinds of humane actions, in response to the damage of the earthquake in Haiti.

The world, in a way, has come together around Haiti. Why, asks Jeremy Rifkin, in a Huffington Post blog post, does it take a devastating natural disaster for that to happen? When suffering results from human actions, why do we tend to turn away?

"When human-induced behavior results in suffering to others on a large scale," Rifkin writes, "we tend to shrug our shoulders as if to say, 'that's human nature and therefore, there's not much we can do about it.' That's because we have come to think of human nature as essentially selfish. Our beliefs have become a self-fulfilling prophecy -- even if they turn out to be incorrect."

So are humans essentially selfish or not? Maybe not.

"In the past 15 years," Rifkin advises, "scientists from a wide range of fields, from evolutionary biology to neurocognitive research and child development, have been making breathtaking discoveries that are forcing us to rethink our long-held beliefs about human nature. Researchers are discovering mirror-neurons -- the so-called empathy neurons -- that allow human beings and other species to feel and experience another's situation as if it were one's own. We are, it appears, the most social animals, and we seek intimate participation and companionship with our fellows."

"It is only when our basic biological drive of emphathic engagement is repressed or denied that secondary drives like aggression, acquisitiveness, and selfish behavior come to the surface."  

How do prepare the ground for empathy to occur? First, by recognizing that fellow feeling is a choice and a desirable one at that. This can start, for instance, in the workplace.

My old Cutlip and Broom PR text states, "The employer must give the employee credit for sincerity and the right to differ. This is not always easy. Some actions that result from employee dissatisfaction put empathy to a severe test."

This is especially so in cases of whistle-blowing, going outside the firm to redress a grievance.

Perhaps the best way to put empathy foremost, or at least move it forward, is simply to ask, "What's going on here? Is there something I may not know or be sensitive enough to?"

Another word for empathy is "possibility." The possibility that we may not have adequately grasped what drives people. 

So listen in, and consider what you may be missing. That could bring a humane response without a disaster occurring first.




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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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