We often hear about empathy as a singular concept—a soft skill, an essential quality of being human that connects us to others. But empathy comes in two flavors. It has shades, and understanding them might make us better humans.
Two Sides of the Same Coin: Logical and Emotional Empathy
– Emotional Empathy: This is the classic definition of empathy that most of us are familiar with. It’s feeling what another person feels. If your friend is sad, you feel sad. If they’re excited, you feel their joy. Emotional empathy happens almost instinctively. It’s raw and visceral.
– Logical Empathy: This form is more calculated. It’s understanding what another person feels without necessarily feeling it yourself. It’s more about perception, awareness, and insight. It’s about seeing things from their perspective, even if you don’t feel their viewpoint.
Emotional empathy might be more natural for some people. You know the type, those who can feel a room’s mood as tangibly as a physical touch. I’ve always admired that, but it wasn’t me.
And then there are others for whom logical empathy might be more innate. These individuals are perceptive, analytical, and capable of seeing a situation from various angles without becoming emotionally entangled. Many of us who make our careers in technology are attracted to the industry because we have these skills.
Learning the wrong lessons early
Most of my first jobs were at large companies with very competitive and hierarchical cultures: IBM, Silicon Graphics, and Microsoft. Microsoft in the 1990s was legendary for its’ hyper-competitive culture. I worked there for eight years. Microsoft taught me that I had to expect that other teams were constantly looking for how to undermine mine and that every outstretched hand was likely masking a knife held in the other hand behind the back. I eventually realized that the environment was a bad fit for me, but sadly, I didn’t get out until I had internalized those lessons.
After Microsoft, I sought out more collaborative environments, but I struggled. I constantly expected ill intent behind every action from a peer. I knew that this was hurting me and that I needed to move to a mindset of expecting positive intent from others, but I didn’t know how to rewire my brain.
A Splash of Insight: David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water”
My epiphany came when someone recommended that I read David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College, “This is Water.” If you haven’t read or listened to it, it’s enlightening. Wallace talks about default settings, the unconscious, automatic ways we interpret everything around us. He speaks about learning to think more compassionately and understanding that everyone around you has a unique inner life full of dreams, fears, and struggles. And it’s not always about feeling their pain; sometimes, it’s about understanding their pain.
Wallace’s speech was a masterclass in logical empathy. And it gave me a better way to try and understand others’ intents, especially when you don’t know someone well.
Developing Logical Empathy When Emotional Empathy Feels Unnatural
So how can you foster logical empathy if emotional empathy doesn’t come naturally to you? Here’s a roadmap:
- Listen More, Talk Less: You don’t have to feel what someone else feels to understand them. Listen actively, engage with their words, and seek to understand their perspective.
- Ask Questions: If you don’t understand something, ask. Asking not only clarifies but demonstrates that you are engaged and interested in the other person’s perspective.
- Seek to Understand Their Context: What could be the pressures on them that they may not be vocalizing? If you are talking to a salesperson near the end of the quota, could they be pressured to make their quota? Is the Product Manager being held to unrealistic expectations by their boss? Leverage what you know about the business or organization to understand what subtexts may be unsaid.
- Reflect: Spend time thinking about the perspectives of others. Consider why they feel the way they do. Analyze their thoughts without judgment.
- Use Imagination: Try to visualize the scenario from their perspective. This mental exercise helps in understanding without feeling.
- Practice Compassion: Logical empathy may not be instinctive, but it’s still a form of compassion. Approach situations and people with an open heart, even if it’s an analytical one.
Embracing Both Forms
The truth is logical and emotional empathy are not mutually exclusive. You can be someone who mainly engages with logical empathy while still having the capacity for emotional empathy and vice versa.
The real beauty lies in embracing both and recognizing that there’s no right or wrong way to connect with others. It’s a journey, and it’s one worth taking, regardless of where you naturally fall on the empathy spectrum.
In our complex and diverse world, empathy in all its shades is more than a desirable trait; it’s a necessity. Understanding how you relate to others and working on enhancing that connection, be it through emotional or logical empathy, makes you not only a better colleague, friend, or partner but a more complete human being.
This exploration of empathy, fostered by wise words from thinkers like David Foster Wallace, has been a personal awakening. It’s water, and now I see it.