Leadership | Learning

How to Build Empathy in People, from a Psychologist’s Trip to the Hospital

looking through glasses

When Peter Mende-Siedlecki was visiting a loved one in the hospital recently, he noticed something strange by the person’s bed. It was a set of statements, designed to remind the hospital staff of three things.

  • “Please call me _____.”
  • “What I would like you to know about me is _____.”
  • “What I value/love most is _____.”

For Mende-Siedlecki, a psychologist at the University of Delaware who’s spent a career studying empathy and spoke at this year’s NeuroLeadership Summit, this was a fantastic discovery. In just three prompts, the hospital engaged in expert individuation, or the psychological practice of seeing people as unique, distinct beings. We can think of it as the opposite of stereotyping.

In the workplace, individuation matters because empathy matters. Every day, teams collaborate based on overlapping strengths and weaknesses, constantly keeping others in mind. We sense people’s needs, they sense ours, and everyone adjusts accordingly.

The trouble is, science has repeatedly shown that empathy is a scarce resource; our brains don’t want to spend it willy-nilly. This leads to unfortunate observations like “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic,” and the all-too-human habit of “compassion collapse” in the face of mass tragedy, where the brain apparently has an easier time caring about one than many.

Individuation, Mende-Siedlecki’s research has found, works as a kind of shortcut to empathy. If we can remember that the people around us feel pain, stress, joy, and all the other things we too feel, maybe we can escape some of the habits that hold us back.

Teams don’t necessarily need to mimic the hospital’s prompts to reap the benefits of individuation. Instead, they can model themselves after the behaviors of society’s master networkers — namely, asking one another about aspects of their personal lives, such as where they’re from, who their family is, and how they stay busy, just to name a few.

The practice also helps build what Stanford University psychologist Leor Hackel calls “reciprocity.” Hackel, also a speaker at this year’s NeuroLeadership Summit, has found in his research that “paying it forward” through charitable actions or words, builds compassion in people.

Creating empathic teams is valuable for leaders because NLI’s own research has found that collective intelligence — even of the emotional kind — is critical for team function. It’s not enough to have a star player, in other words. The best teams are smarter, more creative, and generally higher-functioning because the whole is greater the sum of its parts.

It’s an ironic, humanistic takeaway: The more you help employees see each other as individuals, the stronger your entire team will be.

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