Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Power of Empathy ~ Lidewij Niezink


The mindfulness movement is not just a west coast phenomenon for overworked, stressed-out individuals dissatisfied with their highly competitive lifestyles, sufferers of anger or depression, or those whose lives are sufficiently unwell to the extent that they are seeking ways to cope with personal health crises. It is very much a worldwide movement to expand awareness of the self and our relationship to others. People in other countries are exploring very positive uses for mindfulness in unusual settings.

One such individual is, Lidewij Niezink, Ph.D., a psychological researcher that has discovered that empathy – or mindfulness, tenderness, perspective taking and compassion – can be very powerful tools in organizational change for fire departments where team work is all important.

Fire departments, like other organizations, face challenges when leadership changes. Dilemmas and conflicts can undermine the cohesiveness of a team. Finding a balance between leading and following is important.

Dr. Niezink was a self-avowed pessimist that weighed in on the empathy/sympathy-altruism question as a non-believer – until researching the subject extensively from a scientific perspective. She describes that, among other evidence, brain research using MRIs can actually distinguish perceptible changes in brain activity when powerful images evoke feelings of emotions such as sympathy, empathy, altruism, and compassion in subjects. Niezink’s attitude took a 180-degree turn.


Critics of human altruism have long held that men are motivated to “do good” because of self-centered interests.


In neuroscience the guiding belief is that others make us feel a particular way. They are the cause of our feelings, positive or negative.

Photos compliments of Lidewij Niezink; Images from the “Mercurialis de Arte Gymnastica,” LXXII.

SHAN: How did you first become interested in empathy, altruism and compassion as a field of study using biology, psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy?

LIDEWIJ: My background is in social- and organizational psychology. After three years as an undergraduate at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, I became interested in research on altruism and empathy. I approached professors at my university to discuss possibilities and the ball started rolling.

The project, Considering Others in Need: On Altruism, Empathy and Perspective Taking, appealed to me on both a cognitive as well as a heart-level. There is so much trouble and strife in our world. We seem so obsessed with ourselves, wars, economics, politics, etc. What about the other side of that coin?

Even in psychology, the main focus over the past 60 years has been on disorders, mental illnesses and what is wrong with humanity. Yet most of us are functioning rather “normal.” What do we know about “normal” healthy minds? How can we improve and practice in order to stay healthy? Positive psychology is approaching these questions and I guess you could say that my work is part of that movement.

I’ve researched the effects of empathy and perspective taking on helping behavior and altruism. Perspective taking is an important human capacity and the cognitive part of empathic concern. When we try to imagine what others are thinking, feeling or experiencing, we tend to ask ourselves: “how would I think/feel if I were in the shoes of that other person?” In social psychology, this is what we call an imagine-self perspective. We wonder what we would need if we would be in the shoes of that other person. Although this perspective is eliciting an emotional and cognitive reaction towards the situation of the other, it also has a flaw. After all, we are not really wondering what the other is experiencing. We keep turning around our own personal feelings and needs. It is no problem to ask yourself these questions. It probably gives you good insights in your own personal life. Yet when you attempt to help somebody else, you need to refocus your attention and awareness toward the other person. If you do not refocus you end up projecting what you would want or need in such a situation on the other. But the other person is not you. He or she might have completely different experiences and emotions than you would have.

This is when the second perspective comes into play: Now that you know what you would feel, think and need, how about the other? In the imagine-other perspective we ask ourselves: What would this person experience in this situation? What are his or her needs? This second perspective elicits empathy —“an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition and is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel.” (e.g. Eisenberg et al. 1994).

SHAN: What are some areas of conflict where using a behavioral model can be most successful in bringing about positive results?

LIDEWIJ: The Restorative Justice principle is a problem-solving model for victims and perpetrators. It is very victim empowering and less punitive for the perpetrator than the regular justice system. It gives the victim, as well as the perpetrator, a chance to address a crime. Awareness of the deed and the way the victim was injured by it, as well as holding the perpetrator responsible can be very healing when brought out in the open. It is interesting in terms of empathy. Some victims and perpetrators actually develop empathy for the other. In fact, 75 percent of perpetrators and 80 percent of victims that have been surveyed using this model felt it was helpful.

Organizational conflict is another area that can benefit from empathic awareness. Conflicts in organizations are most often between individuals. Unless there is no interest, these problems are usually solvable. When there is awareness of the causes of suffering, and empathy is applied to a situation of conflict between individuals, it has a broadening affect on perspective for those involved. To move someone out of anger, you have to emphasize the “togetherness” of whatever they are doing together and you’ll create openness that generates exploration and creativity.

The father of modern capitalism, Herbert Spencer, wrote about competition and self-survival as dominant traits in humans. (He came up with the phrase “survival of the fittest.”) But primatologist Frans de Waal has made extensive observations in nature that demonstrate that even animals as mice and primates show cooperation and empathy for one another. In reality humans are wired to cooperate, too. We have a need to cooperate. There is more to life than competition and survival. We do depend on each other. The caring capacity is there. We need to explore it more.

Wherever humans live, work, and play there are potentials for conflict. As we become more aware of others and our differences, we also become more aware of our similarities. Stressful family and personal relationships, work relationships and organizational relationships – experiences and changes that impact our daily lives bring new ways of perceiving situations and opportunities for conflict resolution with others.

To learn more about the work of Lidewij Niezink and how she helps individuals, groups, and organizations to cultivate empathy and compassion into their professional and personal lives see her YouTube video with Edwin Rutsch, Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucIwJtXpfGs&feature=youtu.be

You can also follow her on Twitter: @LidewijNi

Update on May 30, 2021.
Lidewij Niezink, Ph.D., is now host of the Empathy and Charter for Compassion groups on LinkedIn. Dr. Niezink works with Edwin Rutsch, Founding Director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion. Learn more about their Empathy Circles by visiting (http://cultureofempathy.com )
Shän Boggs is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her interests include science, technology, the environment, health, education, multimedia, art, and gourmet cooking. She is the author of a cookbook series for people with food sensitivities.

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