Photo: Coral Trekker — a sailing ship in the Whitsunday Islands off the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
As we move on up the Empathy Pyramid, we come to the first empathy level that really only showed up in force about 500 years ago. Now I’ll be the first to tell you — all the empathetic levels have been around forever– kind of waiting to be unlocked in a case of secrets — but in order to become a primary force in society, a critical number of people have to embody them.
Rational empathy is kind of a nested version of what’s called cognitive empathy by researchers (that link is a paper I’m gonna have to get back to review!) and embodies all three types of empathy. Folks in psychology like to call it “place taking”, and that’s an interesting thing to explore. Namely, because place-taking itself requires some interesting components to be actualized. First — it involves true consequentiality — it exercises the ‘what if?’ part of your brain, as well as embodying a dynamic, as opposed to static, sense of time. Second, it requires the beginnings of differentiation and self- separation — the person across from me isn’t me, and I can’t approach what they want from an egocentric perspective. Finally, it requires of the brain multiple levels of integrated explicit data processing. If you’re going to have rational empathy, you have to take in the immediate information from that person’s face, and either mirror it back to make them feel comfortable (think about how you’d feel if you were sitting across from someone who was feeling sad, and you were smirking); you’d have to process the information on how they feel (are they happy/sad/etc.); and finally, you’ve got to listen to what they want so they’ll feel that potentially their needs are getting met, or their viewpoint is being heard.
To meet all those things, they also have to react to how you feel and think. That can go back and forth — and as such, rational empathy is the first primary duplex (two-way) communication mode.
When you sit down to explain a complex idea to someone, you’re going to watch their face and their body language. And it’s going to take some time. But here’s the amazing thing. When you get through that exchange, you both will have the same story. Rational empathy is a powerful force for information coherence, and is a baseline of higher sentient thought. You just dump a story on someone, and don’t consider how they feel, there’s no guarantee that what they will tell someone will be what you actually told them.
But when you exercise rational empathy, the odds that your stories are the same starts climbing.
Rational empathy is the backbone of the client/customer relationship, as well as what’s being called ‘design thinking’. For the math geeks out there, it is the first consistently meta-nonlinear phenomenon, and as a nonlinear phenomenon, opens up all sorts of interesting things in how the social structures that use it process information. More later!
Takeaways: rational empathy is the backbone of two-way/duplex communication between sentient agents. Because it involves both feeling and logical processing, it is the first real whole-brain empathy mode. It is the foundation of a sophisticated client/customer relationship and what’s being called design thinking.
Further reading: the Wikipedia page on design thinking is worth reviewing — and will set you up to understand how empathy is applied — even though they barely mention empathy. Why that is will be explored…