The so-called Golden Rule is well recognized within Western culture, although most other cultures have similar concepts. Can you do better? I think the answer is yes, and it’s good to try.
The Golden Rule as I understand it is rooted in Christian philosophy. From Matthew 7:12:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
It’s natural to treat other people the way you’d like to be treated. And it’s certainly not a bad starting place. But isn’t it better to try to understand how they’d like to be treated, instead of assuming that they’d appreciate the same things you would?
The distinction is one of perspective. In the Golden Rule, you maintain your own perspective when deciding what’s best. An empathetic viewpoint is from the other person’s perspective.
It’s harder, for sure. But it’s worth it. So many misunderstandings and troubles come from treating other people with the assumption that we’re all the same and we all want the same things. So many missed opportunities.
I once had a conversation about this with a management team. I had just finished reading an article about how to manage people who are driven by intellectual motivations. The discussion very quickly turned to observations that as highly theoretical people, we naturally manage similar people well, and we are less natural at leading people with different motivations (e.g. those who are highly money-motivated, care a lot about aesthetics, having a position of authority, etc). One manager responded by saying “so that’s why I consider Person X and Person Y the easiest to manage in my team.” Another chimed in, realizing that “I suddenly see why it’s natural to be biased towards people like myself.” We recognized what we’d been assuming, and realized that it’s natural, but equally good to be conscious of it.
This conversation later led me to replace the first of our company’s four core values, “the Golden Rule,” with Empathy. We define Empathy in action as “We let go of our egos, consider other perspectives, and act as we would wish others to act.”
This is truly challenging to do. I’ve found it hard to model this behavior myself. The good news is, it’s truly part of who I am and who I want to be, it’s not an act I’m putting on. The hard part is it’s not automatic. It requires being present in each moment. Like everything else, it’s a work in progress for me.
What are your thoughts on empathy in action?