The Importance of Empathy Within Associations

openIt is the very essence of associations to gather different kinds of individuals and personalities, most of the time coming from the world over, around a single cause. Franco Viviani, President of the International Council for Physical Activity and Fitness Research (ICPAFR), reflects here on the notion of empathy and what it means for associations.

In international associations, it is not uncommon to find different human typologies, each of them with different backgrounds. For anthropologists and sociologists, a Chinese is, for instance, the product of a society composed of interdependent individuals. In Asia, individuals adapt to the situation because they do not want to break the harmony of the whole. Good relations with others are of paramount importance, resulting in a strong sense of belonging for every member of the group. For example, if exercising on a regular basis is considered to be a good thing by the group, the individual will never jeopardize the equilibrium with, say, his or her laziness.

Different is the American, who can be considered as independent. Americans consider their individual rights as inalienable, and constantly struggle to show their uniqueness. If, for example, they decide to register to a gym to lose weight, they will experience huge satisfaction when achieving the goal. Contrary to the Asians, Americans focus on the product (the ideal weight) and not on the process.

What happens

One question at this point: how can empathy actually happen when culture seems to determine the way people think and behave? Association executives and members have to be aware of cultural differences, in order to interpret desires, goals, and aspirations of their peers the right way.

But first, what is empathy exactly? An emphatic relationship requires from us to let go, but, at the same time, to take a step back. We all have the capacity to share our feelings with others, something that the Germans call Einfϋhlung, or “feeling into”. “Fellow feeling” was conceptualized by Adam Smith, a 18th-century economist: everybody can have the sensation – good or bad – that what is happening to others is happening to them as well. And, more than a decade ago, neuroscientists started to recognize different kinds of empathy, all of them connected to the fact that humans share what the psychologists call “the Theory of Mind”, ie the capacity to understand not only the emotions and feelings of others, but also their beliefs and intentions. That way we can anticipate and hopefully act accordingly.

Clearly, some components of empathy are simple, others complex. For example, compassion includes the motivation to act when we see someone suffer. Cognitive empathy, in addition, is defined as the ability to “put oneself in someone else’s shoes” and understand their feelings. The most studied aspect is emotional empathy, ie the capacity to share another’s feelings by entering that person’s behavioural state. These three components are critical for our social life: mastering them is fundamental to build good relationships.

Recently, empathy started to be taught at trainings, with the aim to resolve disputes. Chariness is here requested because this complex emotion has many nuances, depending on the circumstances in which it appears. For some scientists it is a sort of “Russian doll”, in appearance very simple, but in reality very complex as we get to the core of its mechanism. What is interesting is the fact that empathy and kindness don’t always go together, as empathy tends to appear if the other person is close to us. This must be kept in mind in international settings.

Interpersonal Relationships

Empathy also often softens the relationships in circumscribed groups (family and friends), but doesn’t necessarily improve the dealings with outsiders. Recently, considering the pseudo-virtues of empathy Bloom & Davidson argued that the outcomes of its exaltation go in the opposite direction to the starting assumptions. Empathy is not an ethical guiding light, as the attention focuses on a few individuals and its field of action is limited. In short, empathy is valid for interpersonal relationships, but can become harmful when it appears in broader circumstances. In this context, the notion of public opinion is antithetic to that of empathy, as it implies a contrast of ideas and not identification among peers.

Back to the associations. As they are generally formed by individuals who share common goals, empathy may be useful to mollify interpersonal relationships. Some of them, who clearly play a role in globalization processes, lack empathy, as they don’t see or impact the general public. They are testament of what I call the “cosmopolitan eradication” of the gated communities of the international metropolises, like London, New York, Dubai, or Singapore, in which they work. Social networks, with their filter bubbles, echo chambers and one-to-one marketing, encourage closed communities of like-minded individuals and discourage openness.

If associations need to promote empathy, some measures can be taken, starting, for instance, with the inclusion of women, particularly in the board, as research shows that women tend to be empathic than men. Empathic efforts can also include individuals of different ages and cultural background – young people may display a diffused intelligence that counterbalances the crystalized one of the senior executives. They are also more open, especially if raised in an international context. Different backgrounds indeed exert multiple influences on cognition. For example, different mother languages impart different cognitive abilities, and that can promote nuanced inclinations towards empathy.

Future research will clarify whether or not empathy has been overestimated. For the moment, we can use it cautiously, in well-defined circumstances, bearing in mind that putting oneself in other people’s shoes can have unexpected consequences.

This article was contributed by Franco Viviani, President of ICPAFR, University of Padua, FISPPA & Biomedicine Departments.


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