Can technology improve our empathy?
At a recent Future of Work and Design Thinking workshop I attended at tech company’s brightly coloured but eerily spotless downtown offices, a beautiful, if not utopian world was described in a conversation I had at lunch: advances already happening in technology will, in the next 10 years, eliminate mundane and repetitive tasks that consumes so much of our time and energy . With these advances will come extra free time. And extra free time will ‘allow’ us to be more creative and empathetic. Technology, it was argued, will actually bring us back to our humanity.
Is there nothing technology can’t fix? According to this event, even our interpersonal relations.
Teresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, defines empathy as having four parts: 1) the ability to recognize someone else’s perspective as their truth, 2) the ability to refrain from judgment when we hear that truth (something very hard to do, especially since humans are also very good at judging each other), 3) the ability to personally connect with the emotions experienced by the other person, and finally, 4) the ability to communicate that emotion to the other person.
Unless humans actually learned how to ‘do’ empathy, I posit that there is no way technology can ever make us any better at it, even with all the extra time in the world. The problem isn’t the lack of time. Its the lack of practice. Even worse, the lack of priority, a prospect only getting bleaker by the day. And no amount of extra free time can solve that.
Some 87% of millennials admitted to missing out on a conversation because they were distracted by their phone. Ironically, in a world that is increasingly connected, we as individuals, as families, as societies, are becoming less connected. A Gallup poll shows that families eat together more infrequently, while 51% of teens prefer communicating digitally than in person Even with friends! And 43% of 18-24 year-olds say that texting is just as meaningful as an actual conversation with someone over the phone. This has dire consequences on our ability to empathize.
A finding by Sara Konrath at Michigan University shows that young people — those generations born with and raised on technology — are actually becoming less empathic than ever; American College students showed a 48% decrease in empathic concern and a 34% drop in their ability to see other people’s perspectives.
These young people are those who will be taking over our workplaces. The very ones who, even with technology, are getting worse at it. The World Economic Forum recently produced a list of the top 10 skills needed in the Future of Work. Fourth on list is people management, fifth is coordinating with others and sixth is emotional intelligence — skills all deeply interwoven in the power of empathy.
In my years of providing empathy training to organizations, I’ve found that two skills can change the world better than any technological advancement: listening and asking questions. Both profoundly simply and terribly difficult things to master.
Much has been written on the topic of listening. But it boils down to this: listening is not an activity. Its a choice. A profoundly simple choice to stop talking, to refrain from retort, and to actually listen to what someone has said. This is hard to do, even when tempers haven’t flared. Impossible when they have. Simon Sinek, the renowned TED talker speaker, gives this advice: rather than practicing the art of listening, practice the art of speaking last. Whatever your method, empathy requires that you seek to understand. And that can only begin when you stop trying to explain.
Amanda Lang, a CBC journalist and author of The Power of Why, explains in her book how curiosity and the ability to ask good questions not only fuels innovation but can drive change in business and society. But most adults are woefully unskilled in going deep and asking hard questions. Cultivating a sense of wonder and awe is the key to empathy, and that can be mastered by purposefully asking questions that seek to understand the hopes, concerns, beliefs, fears, desires and hopes of those around us. In asking ‘why’ questions, not only do we connect with the experiences of others, what we really do is connect to the same feelings that unite us as human beings.
Practice the choice to listen and the curiosity to understand why. Then, and only then can the extra free time that technology will afford us actually help save us from ourselves.