November 22, 2015 ~ Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.32.43 PM“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” – Alan Greenspan

Given that empathy seems to be at least a sign of weakness if not a ‘bad word’ (a la bleeding heart) in certain business (and political) circles – I’ve led off with the German equivalent so as not to scare anyone away. (I find it ironic that the German word Schadenfreude is getting much more airtime these days!)

This column is intended to be a complement to the previous article titled “Lessons Learned from Street People.”.


I suppose it is (more than) a bit controversial to have a business article focus on something like empathy – I can’t help but wonder how many of my topics fall into this category?

Regular readers will recognize I have already written extensively on this before in various contexts.

  • Einfühlung is a distinguishing characteristic (carbon vs. silicon)
  • Einfühlung is Important in communication
  • Einfühlung is key to a holistic approach
  • Einfühlung helps you deal with people

Clearly, this is a vast, complicated (but per the sister article relevant) topic so while I have a couple comments today – there will likely be more to come.

“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” ~ Daniel H. Pink

While I intend to focus on the topic of empathy (and as usual draw on research of others and my reading and experience) I would like to start with a story that not only involved empathy but also a topic that goes hand in hand and also reflects a perpetual challenge in business (and life) – defining yourself (and others) by limitations.

On a recent cross country junket, I was on a flight delayed out of Dallas. Needless to say there was a boarding area full of disgruntled people – with one exception.  There was a young girl confined to a wheelchair who had put on her headset presumably with ballet music as she was whirling a la a pirouette in her chair.

I was fascinated and lucky enough to make eye contact and exchange smiles. One of the most unbelievable parts of the experience was how many people were ignoring her.

Finally, they were boarding the flight and as I stood in line they announced ‘people needing special assistance’ should board.  At that point her mother was pushing the chair – the little girl turned and with the saddest eyes and most depressed body language asked her mother if she was going on first because she was handicapped. She looked at the agent who, of course, had done nothing to even acknowledge her.

It was at that point, with a flash of inspiration that I piped up – “No, I think you are going on because they board ballerinas first.”

Within a flash it was a different child!

And in a flash so many of the things I have learned about neuroscience and psychology were confirmed.

I share this story because I believe it illustrates the power of empathy – I am confident she believed me because we had established a rapport – two people who had shared an experience.

I share it also because the metamorphosis in that little girl illustrated (confirmed) to me a lot happens when we define ourselves (or let others) by our limitations.

Is this experience unique to a child in a wheelchair? I would argue (supported by several previous articles, as well as work by Simon Sinek and Frans de Waal) – no! The point is, this is illustrative of human interactions. This is indicative of the common denominator of all these articles – people.

“So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’” Neil deGrasse Tyson

Let’s move on to a more scientific/academic plane – I call your attention to a recent TED Talk by Rebecca Saxe titled “How We Read Each Other’s Mind”. To me the most salient point here is there is a specific region of the brain (Right temporal parietal junction (RTPJ) that is solely focused on understanding others and thinking about others’ thoughts.

All this starts around five years old when we realize other people can have different beliefs. You would think by the time you are old enough to be a business builder or a business manager you would have mastered these skills!

It has been said children learn to read hearts before minds!

For my money the two definitive works on empathy and primates (most business people are primates although there are times….) are “The Age of Empathy” and “Good Natured” (1996!) by Frans de Waal.

Let me give last words to De Waal from “The Age of Empathy:”

“At the same time, there is no good answer to the eternal question of how altruistic is altruism if mirror neurons erase the distinction between self and other, and if empathy dissolves the boundaries between people. If part of the other resides within us, if we feel one with the other, then improving their life automatically resonates within us.  And this may not be true only for us.  It’s hard to see why a monkey would systematically prefer prosocial over selfish outcomes if there weren’t something intrinsically rewarding about the former.”

You know, this reflects more than good science – it is good business!

Agree? Disagree? Let me know your thoughts and personal experiences. And let’s remember to be empathetic to each other in the comments.

About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. Generally speaking, the ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.