Back to Basics — Updating the Empathy Model with Conscious Empathy

Empathy Slide

Adding a level — the Introduction of Conscious Empathy

I’ve been listening to a great audiobook that corresponds to my last blog post — Chris Voss’ negotiation text, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.  Voss, a former FBI chief hostage negotiator, tells the story of his path to becoming a master negotiator from a very heuristically based, how-to perspective — how he learned explicit knowledge from the FBI negotiation school, and integrated this from his experience, a process we talked about extensively in our Neurobiology of Education post. As a hostage negotiator, stakes were the highest they could be. If he or his team made a mistake, innocent people died.

What did that mean for someone like Voss?  It meant that he couldn’t just rely on training or opinions of lead negotiation experts in all the various prestige outlets, like Harvard or MIT — bastions of low-empathy negotiating styles, with the typical Authoritarian/Legalistic structures of universities.  Voss talks about the predictable complex algorithms generated by these experts, that essentially worked poorly, if at all.  Voss needed adaptive, heuristic thinking.  You can run, but you can’t hide from Conway’s Law!

Which takes us back to the primary content of this blog — he couldn’t sacrifice validity for reliability in his efforts to improve his performance.  Maybe standard negotiation techniques would reliably release 50% of the hostages, or solve the problem 50% of the time.  Bu this simply wasn’t OK for only one of two hostages to get killed.  In any given situation, all the people had to live.  He could not, as he says, ‘split the difference’.

And what was his path to becoming that ultimate negotiator?  He had to learn how to connect with whatever sociopath was across from him in a locked down building, as well as master his own emotions and brainstem functions along the way.  Interestingly enough, he had to not focus on status and control — taking over his adversary’s brain through dominance.  These motivators of typical Authoritarian and Legalistic v-Memes would not get to the Performance-based v-Meme goal — all hostages released.  He had to connect to them so profoundly that their rational faculties started creating shared solutions to the impasse that would allow the target to agree to surrender, and their hostages to go free.  As we know from past posts, multiple solutions are far more likely to be emergent from independently generated, trust-based, data-driven relationships — hence the need for self-aware, conscious empathetic connection with the person on the other side of the negotiation. Even if they’re taking hostages inside a bank.

What evolved out of those very goal-based constraints was a practice of real-world empathetic skills that literally climbs up the empathy pyramid I’ve already developed.  It starts by taking an extraordinarily high-stress situation — negotiating over someone’s life when they have a gun to their head — and walking up the empathy ladder, one emergent level at a time, to build a conscious, strong, self-aware bond with whatever person, with whatever problem.

I highly recommend getting the book or listening to the audiobook. The chapter titles clearly correspond to the different levels of my modified Empathy Pyramid.  Remember that all empathy levels in the pyramid are nested — lower levels are manifested in the upper levels, and included for use and expression as one goes up. Emotional Empathy has both the emotional aspects, and mirroring behavior.  And so on up the pyramid.

  • Be A Mirror  (Mirroring Behavior with an emphasis on Active Listening)
  • Don’t Feel Their Pain — Label It (Emotional Empathy, directed as part of Conscious Empathy.)
  • Beware ‘Yes’ — Master ‘No’ (Rational Empathy through establishment of agency in the empathetic target.  I often talk about this in the context of the personal differentiation and self-separation necessary to act independently in establishing a relationship.)
  • Trigger the Two Words that Transform Any Negotiation (in the book, these two words are “That’s Right”, as opposed to “You’re Right”.  This creates the referential grounding between the negotiator and the target that allows synergies to happen.)
  •  Bend Their Reality (Re-grounding their Authority in a shared sense.)
  • Create the Illusion of Control (once a profound empathetic connection is established, relate to them with the Authoritarian/Egocentric v-Memes that dominate their thinking.)
  • Guarantee Execution (using an appeal to reliability to execute what they expect — no surprises to boot them back into a Survival v-Meme mindset.)
  • Bargain Hard (use their connection to you, along with your knowledge of their true needs to develop solutions that satisfy all parties.)
  • Find the Black Swan (use discovery and metacognition to expand the solution space from its original boundaries.)

I haven’t started the last chapter, Find the Black Swan, yet, but will write on this again.  The beauty of understanding empathetic evolution is that you can predict what the author will say.  🙂

What’s fascinating for me personally is listening to the book made me realize I missed a very important part of independent empathetic development that was staring at me from Spiral Dynamics.  This core concept is ‘what part of our brain/society is in charge’ and how we can understand our own empathetic evolution in the context of all of this.  With the introduction of Conscious Empathy (Voss calls this Tactical Empathy) , we now have an individual Spiral Second Tier Thinking concept for self-awareness, a true Buddhist Third Eye paradigm where we can watch ourselves evolve a connection with a fellow human being through using developed empathetic techniques.  Note in the figure below, the brain stem is not circled.  For the fully Conscious Empathetic mind, our evolved consciousness is running the show — not flight, fright, fight or freeze.

Though Voss doesn’t reference it in the audiobook, he advocates for the well-known empathetic connectors of active listening as mirroring behavior, as well as prosodic voice — what Voss calls his ‘late night radio DJ voice’.  Prosody, the process of using varying rhythms and melodies to convey emotional affect and cement emotional empathy in the voice, has been heavily studied by pioneering empathy researcher Stephen Porges, professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina and groundbreaking author of The Polyvagal Theory, that maps the connections of emotional empathy to the vagus system in our intestines and beyond.  His “That’s Right” as opposed to “You’re Right” response from the person one is negotiating with is the key signal that an independently generated, data-driven, trust-based relationship based on rational empathy is in place.  By reassuring the target that you get their position, you establish the authenticity for novel problem solving to occur.

All of this now leads to a more complete, 3-D version of our Empathy Pyramid, mapped across to both Spiral Dynamics and the Triune Brain.  The unification looks like this:

Empathy Neural Fcn SD Slide

Cross-Referencing Graphic for Neural Function, Empathetic Evolution and Spiral Dynamics

Throughout the book, there are more empathetic gems.  One of my favorites was “Don’t make assumptions.  Make hypotheses.”  By constantly emphasizing data driven thinking, data-driven rational empathetic relationships, and encouraging the negotiators to prove their beliefs, Voss tills fertile ground for rational thinking in venues such as negotiation and beyond.

And that leads to the Five Level Empathy Pyramid!  From here forward, that’s what I’ll be using in this blog. For those that subscribe, you can imagine how that might reaffirm much of the Design Thinking work I’ve done on this blog.  In particular, those upper-level systems of Design Thinking are going to require conscious empathy on the part of the designers.

Footnote — credit where credit is due:  Lou Agosta, of the Chicago Empathy Project, pointed out to me that using the matryoshka analogy for empathy didn’t start with me.  Franz De Waal, in his seminal text, The Age of Empathy, he has equivalent mapping in the bottom three levels of his empathy model, and rightly deserves credit for being first to talk about the nested characteristic of the bottom three levels of my Empathy Pyramid.




3 thoughts on “Back to Basics — Updating the Empathy Model with Conscious Empathy

  1. Very nice. Engaging and provocative. Here’s the thing – we humans – and perhaps all mammals – are neurons. We are neurons all the way down. But then the neurons start to generate meaning, consciousness, and community – that’s sometimes called the “hard problem of consciousness” (e.g., Dennett et all). When we arrive at the realm of meaning, then you are on my turf. It is a whole new ballgame (so to speak). Then the relatedness really starts to get interesting. Looking forward to further updates.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Here’s the thing, Lou — every living thing is a manifestation of information and energy. Once we figure out the scaling and structure, we can get an idea of where we might be going next. That’s kinda what this blog is all about.


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