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. .

 

 

 

 

Paradox of Frameworks

I have a very ambivalent relationship with frameworks- I love them because they help me to think cogently but simultaneously, I hate them because they restrict the free-flow of my thoughts and feelings.Feeling/ Thinking is a fluid process on which structure can be imposed only “post-facto” Undoubtedly, there is some connection between the “chain of thoughts” but the possibilities are so many that no one can predict as to the direction in which this river of thoughts and feelings will flow. The experience of a “falling apple”, made Newton ask a certain question which led him to the path of discovering the principle of gravity. There is no particular reason for him to have traversed that path, instead he could well have speculated about the taste of the apple or its nutritional value or the different colours,shapes and sizes in which they come or even what would have happened if the apple had fallen on his head and injured him etc. etc. The possibilities are endless and the connections between any two thoughts can only be in hindsight.

It is here that frameworks play an important role. They channelise the thought process, put them into a pre-fixed structure and enable us to make some sense out of them. However, this structuring extracts a heavy price. It requires us to ignore (or at least put aside) all such feelings and thoughts which do not fit into the pre-fixed structure. For example, if one is thinking about the issue of “gender relations” using the binary framework of Men and Women, then it becomes necessary to exclude all thoughts about people who do not fit into this binary.This is most evident when people use simplistic frames like good-bad, beautiful-ugly, success-failure, right-left, liberal-conservative, selfish-altruistic, introverted-extroverted etc. The more rigidly a person holds the framework, the more he/she is forced to “exclude”. For example  a person who has very rigid ideas about “good” and “bad” will end up excluding everything which is “grey” as compared to the person whose framework is more nuanced.

However, no matter how complex and nuanced a framework may be, it will necessary exclude something and whenever we engage with the excluded phenomenon ,we will be confronted with a paradox. To understand this, we need to understand the nature of paradox.

Paradox is one of the most misunderstood and misused  terms in general discourse. Often we mistake it as any contrary/contradictory pull. For example if I say that I want to be at home and at work at the same time, then this phenomenon is NOT a paradox, it is merely a presence of two conflicting desires. Paradox arises when a logically drawn conclusion from a premise, contradicts the premise itself. A simple example of a paradox is the assertion “I always tell lies”. The difficulty with this assertion is that if it is true, then the person is telling a lie and hence it is necessarily untrue. In other words, a paradoxical assertion has to be “false” in order to be “true” and vice versa.Similarly, a paradoxical injunction can only be followed by disregarding it. When a parent tells a child “don’t listen to me”, then a parent is giving a paradoxical injunction to the child. The child is being asked to “listen” to the parent in order to “not listen”.

Normally, such paradoxes do not create much difficulty for us because we take it for granted that the assertion or injunction is not to be applied to itself. In the examples given above the statement “I always tell lies”  – if not applied to itself ,becomes a simple confession of a compulsive lier. Similarly the parental injunction for “not listening” is simply asking the child to develop his/her own thinking. The difficulty  arises when the  assertion/injunction is applied to itself.  In paradox theory, this  is called  “self-referrence” i.e. when an assertion or injunction is applied to itself. For those who are interested in this subject may like to see my paper   “Beyond The Law Of Contradictions” available here. For the limited purpose of this piece, it is enough to note that the paradox arises  from this phenomenon of “self-referrence”

The paradox becomes apparent whenever a framework (i.e. structure of ideas) is applied to itself. Can an insane person see his own insanity?  In order to do this, the person will necessary have to step out of his/her insanity. The same is applicable in virtually all spheres. An introverted person must be able to step out of his/her introversion in order to recognise it and similarly an extroverted person can see his/her extraversion only by turning the gaze inwards. Take the example of Defence Mechanisms- a very powerful and useful framework for understanding human behaviour. So long as the person is caught in a defence mechanism, it can not become visible to the individual. The moment a memory or an impulse is repressed, it becomes inaccessible to the individual and hence an assertion like “I have repressed something” is self-contradictory or paradoxical.

Thus, the meaningfulness of any framework rests on our ability to stand apart from it. However, the framework by its very nature prevents us from this side-stepping. The framework becomes a sentry of sorts which screens our thoughts and feelings and views their admissibility from its own unique lens. Thus, if an individual is using a framework which looks at organisations as purposive instruments then he/she can only engage with thoughts which pertain to efficiency, productivity, output, skills, competencies etc. All feelings and thoughts about human sensitivity,ambience,  ecology, etc. must be blocked as potential distractions and irrelevant to the matter at hand. The only way in which these thoughts and feelings can find an entry is through questioning the assumption on which the framework is built, which in the case cited above would be – Is organisation only a purposive instrument of performance? If this question is not asked then all endeavours  of humanising the organisation will paradoxically become instruments of further dehumanising as can be seen in expressions like human resources, human inventory, human assets etc. whereby the human being is reduced to being a “commodity”.

Similarly if one tries to fit the phenomenon of “intimacy” in a framework of introversion-extraversion, one will  constantly be running in circles. In intimacy there is a deep connect both with the Self and the Other- it can neither be regarded as introverted nor extraverted. Even if one regards introversion and extraversion as two poles of a continuum, with a large middle ground, it still can not explain intimacy. Intimacy does not happen in any middle ground- it is a state wherein both introversion and extraversion are intense and mutually dependent upon each other. In a sense one is deeply connecting with oneself through connecting with the other and vice versa. Hence in order to engage with intimacy, one has to go to a higher/deeper level wherein introversion and extraversion can be held in simultaneity rather than as two poles of a continuum. This is not to suggest that the framework of introversion and extraversion is of any less value, but only that like all frameworks it stands on some basic foundations (in this case, a clear separation between “inside” and “outside”) and any attempt to engage with phenomenon which go beyond the limits set by its foundations will necessarily create a paradox.

This is in line with the theory of paradox which stipulates that no paradox can be resolved/dissolved at the level in which it arises. In order to address a paradox meaningfully, one needs to move to a higher/deeper level of enquiry. In case of Frameworks, this deeper level refers to the philosophical underpinnings of the framework.

Interestingly, we are living in times when our reliance on frameworks in virtually all spheres of life is increasing exponentially. Be it our personal lives or professional, we are inundated by frameworks like diet charts, exercise regimes, child-rearing practices, competency mapping, bench marking, balanced score cards etc. etc. Simultaneously  our patience and  willingness to understand  the underlying assumptions of these frameworks is coming down. Consequently the only criteria by which we can assess any framework is its relative popularity and acceptance in the market place and the only understanding that we have of any framework is what can be quickly gathered through Google and Wikipedia. The motto of our life seems to be “Why waste time in thinking? Just Google it and act”It is therefore not surprising that today in the name of frameworks what we have are mere fads- which come and possess us for a little while and are then replaced by another set of fads. This is an inevitable consequence of the all too prevalent aversion towards philosophy in our times. Nearly a century ago, Aldous Huxley had painted the picture of a “Brave New World” which will only be driven by technology and in which Philosophy will have no place. It seems we are proving him right.

Frameworks are extremely useful provided they are used for stimulating our thinking and organising our thought process. Paradoxically, if we become their captives they can also become the biggest stumbling block to our thinking and hence defeat their own purpose. Perhaps instead of looking at frameworks as “providers of answers”,  if we engage with them as  stimuli for questioning and deeper understanding, we can forge a more meaningful relationship with them.