Power of Being Heard, Empathy, Understanding and Research

by Mary K. Clark

How does it feel to be understood?  What is involved in empathy? How quickly do impressions of others form? What is the connection between empathy and emotional contagion? How do we come to understand each other?  What does research have to share that can help us with these questions? The four resources below help answer these questions – questions that connect to our story work and the relationships we seek to build.

The Power of Being Heard

How can we best provide an experience of being heard to groups of people sharing stories about their lives in conflict-resolution programs?  “When it comes to intergroup conflict, the group with less power benefits more from sharing its perspective,” reports Anne Trafton in The Power of Being Heard.  Last year, a group of MIT neuroscientists found that if a traditionally dominant group listened to stories of a less dominant group there were greater benefits than when the reverse occurred.

Despite this the researchers, Rebecca Sax and Emile Bruneau, do not believe that a one-sided approach should be adopted.  They suggest that it is important for both groups to speak equally.  However, when the less powerful group shares their stories first, it primes “both groups to be more receptive to the unity-building activities that follow.”

The finding, published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, supports the idea that for the disempowered group, the biggest barrier to reconciliation is the belief that their concerns are being ignored, says Rebecca Saxe, senior author of the study.

“If that sense of being neglected and disregarded and taken advantage of is the biggest obstacle to progress, from their perspective, then you can partly address that by providing an experience of being heard,” says Saxe, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and associate member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.

I wonder if this same effect would be true with respect to other groups or individuals where there is a power imbalance?

Interestingly, this is the first study to look at the other side of perspective taking – “perspective giving.”  Perspective giving is the “opportunity to share one’s own story with someone else.”

If, after reading the article above, you would like to read the full study, The power of being heard:  The benefits of ‘perspective-giving’ in the context of intergroup conflict, it can be found at the following site:


 Empathy, Emotional Contagion and Leadership

Recently Nancy Stanton Multer shared an article by Richard Boyatzis which also relates to the topic of being heard and empathy:  Neuroscience and Leadership:  The Promise of Insights.  How do we as leaders and human beings, engage and inspire others?  What might neuroscience have to share with us that might be helpful in our work?  On Emotional Contagion and Empathy, Boyatzis writes:

While most people will acknowledge the role of empathy in understanding others, few appreciate how quickly impressions of others get formed or the neural mechanisms involved. For this we must look to the research on contagion. Prior research has explained mimicry and imitation (Hatfield, Cacioppo & Rapson, 1993). But recent studies, although somewhat controversial, offer three possibilities regarding emotional contagion: (1) emotional contagion spreads in milliseconds, below conscious recognition (LeDoux, 2002); (2) emotional arousal may precede conceptualization of the event (Iacoboni, 2009); and (3) neural systems activate endocrine systems that, in turn, activate neural systems (Garcia-Segura, 2009).

The Culture and the Science of Empathy

For those interested in the science behind empathy, the culture of empathy, the study above and more, please view the video, Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy in which Emile Bruneau is interviewed by Edwin Rutsch, Founding Director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy.  Thanks to the Rutsch’s efforts you can find other relevant expert interviews at the Culture of Empathy website as well as other items of interest.  A special thanks to Bob Kanegis for bringing the additional resources of Rutsch’s site to my attention!

How We Read Each Other’s Minds

Finally how do we come to understand what is going  on in the minds of others in the first place? In a very interesting TED talk, entitled How We Read Each Other’s Minds, Saxe “shares fascinating lab work that uncovers how the brain thinks about other peoples’ thoughts — and judges their actions.”  I found it worth it to hang in there until the very end when she answers a couple of questions brought about by her intriguing research.

How do these topics relate to your story work?  Do you have any other related resources?  I’d love to hear about them!

– Mary

Edited 1/21/2013:  Added an additional link and information about Rutsch and the Culture of Empathy website.


©Copyright 1/20/2013  by Mary K. Clark.  All Rights Reserved.


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