The British Psychological Society's Research Digest features new work by Christine Ma-Kellams of the University of La Verne and Jennifer Lerner of Harvard. They focus on empathy, something that has gotten a great deal of attention in the management field recently. The human-centered design movement emphasizes empathy with customers as a key tool for driving innovation. Meanwhile, efforts to improve employee engagement have focused on the need for managers to empathize with their subordinates. La Verne and Lerner study how different types of people engage in empathy, and their results prove rather surprising. The Research Digest summarizes their conclusions:
Reading what other people are feeling is an important skill that helps us navigate conflicts, deepen relationships, and negotiate effectively. So what’s the best way to approach this? New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that most of us believe that the best approach is to trust our instincts. But the paper goes on to show that, on the contrary, accurate empathy comes from operating deliberately and analytically.
What explains this surprising finding that contradicts the conventional wisdom? The authors argue that reading others' emotions often proves very difficult. The cues are not always obvious or clear. Therefore, it takes some effort to discern how others are feeling. That's where a more analytical mindset has value. Focusing on details, evaluating a situation comprehensively, and deliberately analyzing a variety of cues turns out to be crucial to empathizing with others in many situations. Instincts alone do not always do the job.