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Have you ever wondered why we like to help out, what it is that motivates us to do something for someone else, someone we might not know personally and may never get to physically meet? Empathy: our capacity to show we understand what is going on for someone else. The level of empathy we have varies, depending on our genetics, mood, fatigue and stress levels and how much we relate to the other person.

It is one of the safety elements for effective leadership and change found in the acronym T.R.A.I.C.E. – Trust, Respect, Autonomy, Impartiality, Clarity and Empathy.

Picture this:

As the lights dimmed in the theatre, we sat entranced as six storytellers accompanied by vivid imagery on screen, took turns to launch their pitch. This was a fundraiser for local aspiring young filmmakers. Donations from the audience would contribute to the financial success and completion of different projects.

Each story was warmly received, the narratives emotive and dramatic. It felt really hard to decide which would be the most worthy recipient, as they all seemed so deserving. I was especially captivated by a project aiming to save the African rhinoceros from extinction.

After the presentations, the MC quizzed us – who was going to donate and to which film?  The mood of the group was enthusiastic, inspired and excited to contribute.

So, what was going on here?

When we hear a compelling story we release cortisol that helps us to focus attention on the subject, and oxytocin the so-called “trust” hormone that makes us care about the subject matter and feel more empathetic.

Work done by Paul Zak has shown that those of us who produce the most cortisol and oxytocin will contribute the most generously to a good cause or charity, and the level of oxytocin produced can predict a person’s level of generosity.

And you thought you were being spontaneous!

The caveat is the story has to be compelling, to activate the brain to respond in this way and this is where story structure plays a huge role. Known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’ this type of story has been used in many of the most successful films and Ted talks.

The story needs an emotional hook for us to relate to – “goodness this could affect me”, our attention is effectively captured, and we want to see what will happen. We fall effortlessly into the character’s world hoping he/she will overcome their adversity and succeed in the end. Or as the movies would have it – live happily ever after.

Being in the presence of others contributes to social cohesion. If we witness someone whipping out their chequebook, or helping out in some other way we feel more inclined to do the same.

Empathy at work

Empathetic leaders enhance business growth and adaptation to change. Empathetic conversations promote effective communication as all parties feel heard and understood.

Empathy is a business skill that can be learned like any other

Daniel Goleman believes empathy is important especially for

a)     Building effective teams

b)     Coping with the rapid pace of globalisation

c)      Retaining talent

How can you enhance your level of empathy?

1.     Be fully present and show interest in the other person.

2.     Practice active listening.

3.     Tune in to what is not being said.

4.     Reflect on how you come across to others.

5.     Acknowledge effort and give credit when it’s due

6.     Practice mindfulness

Whether you are in the business of making films or not, engaging your audience, customers or your colleagues is all about the same thing; how we relate to each other as human beings. Stories provide a powerful narrative to persuade us to conform and comply because they tap into our emotions, essential for better decision-making and good cognition.

All business is built on the foundation of relationships. Far from being touchy-feely, acknowledging emotions and enhancing empathy are traits that provide the backbone to effective leadership.

How do you rate your EQ (empathy quotient)?

Is empathy a leadership trait that you recognise in others?

How could you raise empathy levels in your workplace?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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