Empathy sans Caring

In a recent discussion on impact of AI (Artificial intelligence) on Coaching, an interesting issue came up – the ability of the Robot to generate an empathetic experience for the client. Clearly, the Robot can be programmed to make all the appropriate responses and ask the relevant questions, which will make the client feel “understood” and “empathized with”. It has been reported that the experience of “empathy” with a Robot is often stronger than with a human coach.

The fact also is that the Robot does not really “care” and has no genuine feeling towards the client. In fact, it can be argued that this absence of feeling, enables the Robot to manufacture “empathy”. A human coach is likely to experience many feelings towards the client and some of them may not be very conducive to empathy.  For example the human coach may feel irritated, angry or impatient and these  feelings will block the human coach from extending empathy, whereas the Robot is free of any such limitation. It is programmed to respond in a way which will be most helpful for the client, even though the Robot does not really care about the client

The ability to split empathy from caring is also acquired by human beings, to varying degrees. As part of our socialization, we all learn to respond in ways which may have very little to do with how we are actually feeling. This split has no great significance in ritualistic situations as it is treated as “par for the course” by all concerned. Thus, when someone expresses condolence at our loss or greets us on our achievement, we do not assume that the other person is actually feeling sad or happy.

The moot question is what happens in situations ( e.g. helping relationships)  where we  expect empathy and caring to co-exist. I recall, several years back, I was co-facilitating  a group, with a colleague who  is a master at the art of providing empathetic experience, irrespective of how she is actually feeling. Hence, to each participant she would give the most appropriate response (e.g. ” It must have been terrible for you” or ” I felt so good listening to you” etc.) To begin with, this created a very positive impact in the group, but soon the group started experiencing this synthetic empathy as oppressive and eventually one of the participants called her a “stale record”

Similarly, there was another colleague who had a ritual of greeting anyone who he was meeting after a lapse of some time with ” I was just thinking about you” This worked wonderfully well in establishing and rekindling a link till the other person discovered that there was no genuine feeling or concern behind the gesture.

We can also have a situation where there is caring but no empathy. A domineering parent is  a typical example of this phenomenon- the parent cares for the well being of the offspring even when he/she has no awareness of what is important for the offspring- how he/she feels, desires, values etc. In both cases the biggest casualty is Trust. In the first case one is left wondering ” Does any one really care?” and in the second “Does anyone really understand? ”

However, in the times that we live  in, Empathy sans Caring is a more prevalent phenomenon than the other way round. The main reason for this is the increasing emphasis on looking at ourselves as “autonomous beings” rather than as “relational beings”. It is true that in the ultimate analysis each of is alone and responsible for our lives. It is equally true that each of us is connected and part of a context.

When we look at ourselves only as atomized autonomous entities, our entire focus goes on enhancing our skills and competencies, ability to understand and manage others, and have greater control over ourselves and our context. It is therefore not surprising that Daniel Goleman’s  notion of Emotional intelligence talks of Empathy and Social Skills but not of Caring. Similarly it recognizes the need for Self Awareness and Self Regulation but not  authentic self-expression.

Intense sense of loneliness, anxiety  and cynicism are inevitable consequences.  It is this loneliness, anxiety  and cynicism which  often the client brings to the coaching setting. While coaching is essentially a learning space, it entails engagement with feelings and emotions. Hence a certain degree of catharsis and emotional nourishment are an integral part of the coaching process.

There has been a significant increase in the demand for interventions which can provide space for this catharsis and emotional nourishment. It is therefore not surprising  that the coaching industry is flourishing. It is often suggested that this is due to the need to keep pace with the VUCA world. This may not be the whole story.

It is worth asking whether the degree of uncertainty  has increased or whether our ability to live with it has decreased ? Are we really living with more uncertainty than what our ancestors did ? Often they had to deal with vagaries of nature, be ready for sudden attacks and did not have a stable infrastructure to fall back upon. Perhaps what they did have was a more stable social infrastructure and anchors of emotional nourishment. It is the sharp decline in this which has taken a toll on our  ability to deal with uncertainty. Every change creates anxiety because the belief is that we have no one else to fall back upon except our own skills and competencies.

The irony is that the more we try to become “self-reliant”, the more we isolate ourselves, the more lonely and anxious we feel , and more VUCA the world appears. This in turn increases our anxiety levels and we become even more hyper. The process is akin to a dog chasing its own tail.

In this context, it is in fitness of things that we should  turn to a machine for emotional support and empathy. The less we need other people the better. Indeed Huxley’s brave new world has arrived. .





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