No Bodies

Watch someone laugh, and you're likely to feel happy. See someone yawn, and you'll start to feel tired. What we think and how we feel is a product of our environment.

In his new book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (excerpted here), Frans De Waal uses a lifetime of researching apes to show that empathy comes naturally to primates, human and otherwise:

The field of “embodied” cognition is still very much in its infancy, but it has profound implications for how we look at human relations. We involuntarily enter the bodies of those around us so that their movements and emotions echo within us as if they’re our own. This is what allows us, or other primates, to re-create what we have seen others do. Body mapping is mostly hidden and unconscious, but sometimes it “slips out,” as when parents make chewing mouth movements while spoon-feeding their baby.

Thought happens in our bodies, not just our minds. We aren’t abstract, central processing units. We live in a world of flesh and blood, and we empathize with others based in part on the movement and expression of their bodies.

But there’s a problem for those of us in the business world. While scientists show that thinking and empathy are both embodied, work is more and more dis-embodied. In our virtual business world we use bandwidth to move our ideas more often than we use airplanes to move our bodies.

De Waal's research shows that our human nature is to help others, not compete with them. Competition is learned; cooperation is natural. But it takes physical presence to trigger the body and brain's natural inclination toward empathy. 

So how should leaders respond? I see three possibilities:

  1. Make as much communication face-to-face as possible.
  2. If you can’t be present, use the best quality video conferencing you can. Even though it’s caged and artificial, some of the empathic content will be conveyed.
  3. Finally, for those times when the only choice is the telephone, use vivid imagery to help us picture you. If you are nervous about a proposed option, tell us you’re pacing in the conference room. If you’re excited about an idea, describe the wide grin on your face. Deep in thought? Help us picture you staring off in the distance, reflecting.

What other advice would you give to leaders who hope to create empathy in a dis-embodied world?