Empathy Versus Authenticity

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One time, whilst watching a TV program on the subject of ‘what it is to be human’, I remember professor Robert Winston conducting an interesting demonstration. He took an actress, specially chosen because she was somewhat overweight, and asked her to walk around a department store choosing all the wrong things to wear.

She chose tightly-fitting garments, horizontal stripes, short skirts and so on. Then he asked her to go into one of the changing cubicles, put them on and wait for someone to appear outside. When this happened, her brief was to come out of the cubicle, start looking in the mirror and ask the stranger what he/she thought about her choices.

Now, what percentage of the people filmed in this experiment told her the truth do you suppose? See if you can come up with a figure and I’ll tell you later if you are right. Stop reading just for a brief moment or two and just think about your gut reaction. What do you think? 50%, 20%, 10% – make your decision now?

You probably wouldn’t expect everyone to tell the truth in this situation. In fact, it is also worth thinking about whether or not you would have told her the truth had you been asked. What would your answer be to that question? Would you have said something like, ‘if I were you, I would choose something else’ or would you have told her that she looked very nice?

It turns out that the great majority of people, in this situation, prefer to avoid the truth. Why? Because, of course, they are sensitive to the feelings of the other person. They don’t want to cause any unnecessary hurt, so they prefer to lie. My mum would have called such an untruth a ‘white lie’. It is their ability to empathise with the situation of the other person.

It is this same ability (empathy) that causes us to cry, or indeed experience other emotions, when watching certain movies. Why do we feel emotions when we watch some films? Because, in effect, we have put ourselves into the shoes of the character in the movie and so we experience exactly the same emotions we would feel if we were actually in the real situation – and that’s empathy.

When you think about this example, it is very easy to see the relationship between empathy and honesty or, the term I prefer to use, ‘authenticity’. Being authentic involves having the courage to be honest in your dealings with others. For most people, as the experiment showed, it is not always an easy thing. By the way, in the test, nobody told the actress the truth – that’s right – 0%.

Now some people have developed the authenticity characteristic within their personality; others have developed the empathy characteristic. It is definitely worth doing a bit of soul-searching, asking yourself the question: which of these two factors is the most dominant driver for my behaviour? When you know, you will be able to watch out for occasions when your habitual behaviour starts to kick in.

With practice, you can develop a truly balanced approach to dealing with others. You can have the courage to be honest in your dealings whilst simultaneously remaining sensitive to feelings. The key is to be acting from the right motive – and that is, love. Don’t speak out of spite, or in judgement of another, or to get the upper hand in a conversation. Just allow that genuine, kind and loving person that is part of your inner core – your higher self – to guide your actions, and you won’t go far wrong.

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