Sunday, April 20, 2008

When Empathy Can Get You Into Trouble: The Thin Edge of the Wedge for Barack Obama

Emotional intelligence refers to an ability to recognize the meanings of emotions and their relationships, and to reason and problem-solve on the basis of them…it is the capacity to perceive emotions, assimilate emotion-related feelings, understand the information of these emotions, and manage them.

---Mayer, et al

We all know what it’s like to grieve for a loved one. So, when someone out of the goodness of his heart says to us, “I know how you feel”, the first reaction is to say, “No you don’t”. It’s presumptuous for another to claim she can step into our shoes and experience our pain. Yet, we hesitate to verbally reject that person’s kindness because he ‘meant well’. It’s quite a dilemma for both of us.

In this vein, Barack Obama fell into the trap of apparently feeling for another by naming it and igniting a firestorm of “No, you don’ts”. At a closed door fundraiser earlier this month in San Francisco, he remarked that working-class white voters in Pennsylvania towns and in the MidWest are “bitter because of job losses” and thus “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”. Yes, that kind of thought process will get anyone into trouble! There are too many disconnects in the logic.

But, Obama wasn’t using logic. It was about empathy—an emotional connection to people’s frustrations due to the loss of good jobs in the globalized economy. He ‘meant well’ but he forgot that he really doesn’t know how others truly feel and think about their changing worlds.

With reference to Mayer’s definition of emotional intelligence, Mr. Obama perceived and assimilated the emotions. Where he skipped a beat was taking it upon himself to interpret the meanings of the emotions and translate them publicly into behaviours. He failed to balance emotions with evidence.

Using the grieving for a loved one example, we respond far better to someone’s empathy if we are asked: “What can I do for you right now”? Or, if that person simply listens to our present story and basically is a shoulder to cry on without judgment. The other takes cues from us first, as a good coach does. We also appreciate the little acts of kindness such as handwritten cards, homemade casseroles, etc., for all those visitors and generally a phone call here and there to see how we are doing. It’s at our pace and in our terms.

We look to our leaders to be good at connecting with us, not only to empathize with a particular situation but also to engage and motivate us for the long-term. Barack Obama’s faux pas illustrates that emotional intelligence does not mean “I know how you feel”. On the contrary, it means first and foremost searching for “How do you feel”?

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