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What Psychopaths Can Teach Us About Emotional Agility

How We Can Learn From Psychopaths About Workplace Empathy

The empathy switch. Usually associated with the Lectur-like ability to glide effortlessly from charm to callousness in the blink of an eye. The domain of criminals and those that your mother told you to stay away from, how could we possibly have anything to learn from the playground of psychopaths?

Do Psychopaths Lack Empathy?

Christian Keysers from the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands turned conventional wisdom on it’s head with his research. It was always accepted that psychopaths failed to experience empathy. Not true, said Keysers, whose research suggested instead, that psychopaths do indeed experience empathy, regulated by an on/off switch. In psychopaths the switch appears to be turned to ‘Off’ by default allowing them to more readily manipulate others sans guilt.

Mirror Neurons

Neuroscientists believe that our capacity for empathy is regulated by mirror neurons which are activated when undertake an activity ourselves or observe someone else doing it. If it’s possible for psychopaths to develop and operate their mirror neutrons at will, how about the rest of us?

What Psychopaths Can Teach Us

We’re not suggesting that you make like Hannibal Lectur with your colleagues (it may work for a while, but you’d soon run out of allies). But what if we were able to flip the idea of an empathy switch away from pathology and into the world of work? There might be times when the ability to turn empathy off enhances performance rather than impedes it without turning you into the office psychopath. How so?

Emotional Agility & Empathy

Dr Susan David, Havard Medical Faculty Psychologist popularised the concept of ‘Emotional Agility.’ David outlines four key areas of emotional agility, or the ability to effectively traverse our daily emotional terrain.

Showing Up: Instead of ignoring difficult thoughts and emotions or overemphasizing ‘positive thinking’, facing into your thoughts, emotions and behaviors willingly, with curiosity and kindness.
Stepping Out: Detaching from, and observing your thoughts and emotions to see them for what they are—just thoughts, just emotions. Essentially, learning to see yourself as the chessboard, filled with possibilities, rather than as any one piece on the board, confined to certain preordained moves.
Walking Your Why: Your core values provide the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction. Rather than being abstract ideas, these values are the true path to willpower, resilience and effectiveness.
Moving On: Small deliberate tweaks to your mindset, motivation, and habits – in ways that are infused with your values, can make a powerful difference in your life. The idea is to find the balance between challenge and competence, so that you’re neither complacent nor overwhelmed. You’re excited, enthusiastic, invigorated.

Developing Your Own Empathy Switch

The case for ‘off’

Using David’s model of emotional agility, the ability to switch empathy on and off may be a key differentiator in the world place. Consider the surgeon in peak flow, distracted by thoughts of a patient’s family or friends who are depending upon his or her optimum performance. In this instance empathy is not going to assist performance, worse still, it may even impede it, making a flow experience impossible. We know from our extensive work in the NHS, this is a very real phenomenon. Or let’s take first response personnel. In disaster scenarios, where fire rescue, police or paramedics are required, experiencing empathy may hinder the ability to provide effective assistance, resulting in overwhelm. In these instances, again, an empathy switch would enable the achievement of flow performance.

The case for ‘on’

The opposite is true of primary care. Compassion fatigued professions such as nursing where teams are increasingly stretched would benefit greatly from the ability to switch empathy (and compassion) on when necessary. The same is true of outward facing frontline roles where emotional labour often leaves employees feeling drained and depleted.

How to develop your own switch

  1. Practice mindfulness: This is a great starting point. It will make you more aware of your emotions. Once you are able to identify what you’re feeling and when you’re feeling it you’ve taken the first step to training your brain.
  2. Become familiar with compassion practices: Practices that focus on compassion will help you to increase your empathy and rewire the compassion centres of the brain. Examples are ‘Just like me’ or ‘Loving kindness’ practices. Check out our sound cloud recordings for free guided practices.
  3. Learn to pause. Yes, we said pause. If you build mindful pauses into your day you’ll be reducing you’re stress levels leaving you better able to respond rather than react to events. Try the S.T.O.P. practice or build in time out in green spaces to clear your head and dampen down activity in the lower, less rational regions of the brain.

Meffert, Harma, et al. “Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy.” Brain 136.8 (2013): 2550-2562.

David, Susan. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Penguin, 2016.

Gill Crossland-Thackray is a Business Psychologist, Visiting Professor, and PhD Candidate. She is Co-Director of Positive Change Guru with her twin, Viv Thackray-Dutton and Director Of Koru Development. She is a member of British Psychological Association, British Neuroscience Association, Association of Business Psychologists, Chartered Institute of Professional Development and a Continuing Professional Development accredited trainer. She writes for a number of publications including The Guardian, Thrive Global, Ultra Fit & HR Zone and is currently working on her first novel. She divides her time between London and the Lake District. She can be contacted at [email protected] 

Originally published at positivechangeguru.com

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