Being cool in crisis seems essential for our being able to think clearly. But what if keeping cool makes you too cold to care? In other words, must we sacrifice empathy to stay calm? That’s the dilemma facing those who are preparing top teams to handle the next Katrina-like catastrophe we might face. Which gets me to Paul Ekman, a world expert on emotions and our ability to read and respond to them in others. Paul and I had a long conversation recently, in which he described three very different ways to sense another person’s feelings.
The first is “cognitive empathy,” simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking, this kind of empathy can help in, say, a negotiation or in motivating people. A study at the University of Birmingham found, for example, that managers who are good at perspective-taking were able to move workers to give their best efforts.
But there can be a dark side to this sort of empathy – in fact, those who fall within the “Dark Triad” – narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths (see Chapter 8 in Social Intelligence) – can be talented in this regard, while having no sympathy whatever for their victims. As Paul told me, a torturer needs this ability, if only to better calibrate his cruelty – and talented political operatives no doubt have this ability in abundance.
Katrina’s devastation, we all saw, was amplified enormously by the lackadaisical response from the very agencies that were supposed to manage the emergency. As we all witnessed, leaders at the highest levels were weirdly detached, despite the abundant evidence on our TV screens that the disaster’s victims were doubly victimized by the indifference to their suffering.
Certainly empathy qualifies as one critical measure of the right leader in a crisis, along with being cool under pressure. But exactly what kind of empathy should we look for? When it comes to the right leader for a crisis, cognitive empathy alone seems insufficient . Then, Paul told me, there’s “emotional empathy,” – when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This emotional contagion, social neuroscience tells us, depends in large part on the mirror neuron system (see Chapter Three in Social Intelligence). Emotional empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world, a plus in any of a wide range of callings, from sales to nursing – let alone for any parent or lover.
One downside of emotional empathy occurs when people lack the ability to manage their own distressing emotions can be seen in the psychological exhaustion that leads to burnout. The purposeful detachment cultivated by those in medicine offers one way to inoculate against burnout. But the danger arises when detachment leads to indifference, rather than to well-calibrated caring.
Finally, there’s what Paul calls “compassionate empathy,” which I’ve written about using the term “empathic concern” (see Chapter Six in Social Intelligence). With this kind of empathy we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.
Paul told me about his daughter, who works as a social worker in a large city hospital. In her situation, he said, she can’t afford to let emotional empathy overwhelm her. “My daughter’s clients don’t want her to cry when they’re crying,” as he put it. “They want her to help them figure out what to do now – how to arrange a funeral, how to deal with the loss of a child.” Empathic concern was the vital ingredient missing in the top-level response to Hurricane Katrina.