Do not let the remote work destroy the empathy within your teams

Too long didn’t read:

This article is just to share a few notes about empathy and some possible nasty impacts of remote working on it, according to a book on cognitive sciences I was reading this weekend. The book is called Focus, by Daniel Goleman. But before getting to the point of empathy and the possible impacts of remote work, I’ll start with some context on how our brain works. This context will be used later on.

So, if you have interest in themes such as empathy, remote working and cognitive sciences – and if you have several minutes to spare – read on to discover some tools and vocabulary to foster empathy on remote teams and remote connections with clients. I hope you like it.

Long story

This weekend I was reading a book called Focus, by Daniel Goleman. The book is about the science of attention in all its varieties, with great discussions of this little-noticed mental asset that matters enormously for how we navigate life, combining cutting edge cognitive science with practical case studies. I must confess started with it with a bit of “lack of faith”, and my motivation was to better understand my meditation practices (it was a tip from a meditation instructor). At the end I was pleasantly surprised. It gave me several insights. Mostly about self awareness but also some notes to help me as a leader and as a father as well… understanding the way my daughter’s brain works at her age it’s proving to be an amazing knowledge for a new father to have.

Anyways, advertising aside, this text is composed of a collection of my side notes on the book + some insights not from this book. And, very importantly, this article does not aim to be scientifically perfect, nor to substitute the book by any means! The book will contain more accurate data and research than my memory.

Some colored components composing an abstract representation of a brain
( Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay )

Two different brains

Before I jump in into empathy I need to talk about two different brains coexisting. According to modern findings on neuroscience and cognitive psychology, our brains have two different mechanisms that coexist (and compete for processing resources):

Bottom-up thinking: part of our neuropower works on an invisible layer, and most of the processing will happen in a place which is not accessible to our conscious thinking. This is the older part of the brain, and it is evolving for millions of years. This is also the fastest processing part of our brains, and can make billions of operations per millisecond. It is responsible for “gut feelings”, insights, most of the creative and work and out-of-the-box thinking. But it is strongly driven by survival instincts and desires so if it assumes all the control it can bring “irrational” behavior, addictions, etc. The author calls the thinking of this mechanism bottom-up thinking, because it starts in the amygdala, physically placed more at the bottom.

Top-down thinking: This is the newer part of our brain. It is still “under development” somehow, and arguably it is what differentiates us from most animals. It is slow and can take seconds and in some cases minutes to process a lot of information, and consumes a lot of energy. This is where the discursive thinking is located, also the self-awareness and the part of the cognition that the common sense usually calls logical thinking. The processing happens in the prefrontal cortex, more in the top, so the author calls this kind of thinking top-down thinking. (sidenote: I am reading this in Portuguese and translating myself as I write this article, so I may be using wrong terminology). This thinking can be accessible by our conscience and can be described in words. Here is the mental space in which we will solve social and ethical dilemmas, logical problems, rational and intentional decision making, etc. It is responsible for “self-control” and this thinking may help someone on a diet to skip a tasty dessert that the bottom-up thinking is eager to eat right now.

The two systems co-exist and should be in equilibrium. Low performance on one of the two will probably cause different problems. I wanted to go down on fascinating examples here, but I would rewrite an entire book… I’ll resist in making this longer than it already is.

Now… Empathy

In one chapter of the book he discusses empathy. And I’ll short circuit my text directly into a categorization:

Emotional Empathy: The bottom-up brain is very good in connecting to emotions. It is being wired to do that for ages, basically for parental reasons: our children get to the world not ready yet and requires a lot of care for a long while. This need for care made us, human beings, become good at detecting suffering and emotions way before we get to a point of acquiring formal language. In theory my 1,5 years old can read emotions already (with limitations on how to interpret and act on it). This creates one aspect of empathy which the author calls Emotional Empathy. This aspect of empathy make us able to connect (and feel!) other people’s emotions, even without being able to explain it. This next part will be important when I connect this with remote working later: the bottom-up thinking relies a lot on nonverbal communication and very subtle and nuanced cues, such as micro-expressions, sound of voices (tone, pitch, pauses and delays), whole-body language, 3D movements, reaction to the environment, etc. It processes an outstanding amount of information in milliseconds; in a way the top-down brain could not even start doing due to the amount of energy needed .

Cognitive Empathy: there is another aspect of empathy which is driven by the other brain system. This is the aspect of empathy that enables us to reflect, in a conscious way, on the emotions that the others are feeling. Due to this processing we can understand that there are two (or more) different persons on this equation. It makes it possible for us to recognize respect the feelings of the others, but at the same time allows us to make parallels with our own life history. This thinking makes it possible to logically understand why a person is feeling that way, what are the triggers of the emotions, etc. while keeping some distance. Because of that we give advice, ask questions, make decisions that are not purely emotional reactions, reframe the situation, look for alternatives, label emotions and sentiment for what they are, stick to a plan, focus on a greater purpose, etc. etc.

There is a third component, and the Sympathy. But I’ll not go there given the objectives of this text. 

It is all about balance

Again, these two components (Emotional Empathy and Cognitive Empathy) should co-exist in a delicate equilibrium. In an exaggerated example: excess of Cognitive Empathy without Emotional Empathy is a thing which was scientifically measured (by brain scans) on sociopaths (previously called psychopaths) in a study. Sociopaths “feels” in a top-down approach. Those persons can understand when and why emotions emerge in others, without feeling it. They can even trigger those emotional responses on purpose, so this can be used for manipulation. On the other hand, excess of Emotional Empathy without Cognitive Empathy will create a kind of person who will enter in a rabbit hole when talking with someone who is hurting, amplifying the pain instead of helping, and creating a vicious circle downwards for both persons, making things worse instead of helping. Those persons usually can’t take positions with deals with lots of people without a significant risk of burnout for themselves. The examples of those two areas (minus the exaggeration) with medical practitioners shown in the book are incredible, really!

Finally: Impact of remote work and social distancing on empathy according to cognitive science

“Ok Matheus, very interesting. But why share with us and what is the relation with remote working?”

It is a fair question, and in this last part is where I want to make a connection with what we are living at this moment of social isolation and zoom meetings all day long. 

In a paragraph (the book was written before the pandemics, so it was not a huge thing at the time) the author speaks about how remote/distant/written relationships can damage the Emotional Empathy, the bottom-up one.

Putting it simply: the bottom-up brain, responsible for most of the processing that generates Emotional Empathy (being able to detect others emotions and feel part of it ourselves) was wired to rely on some signs that are nonexistent in virtual and written-only communication. This part of the brain is hard-wired to have in person contact. A video can not give us the micro-expressions, whole-body gesture, 3D relations, etc. it needs.

Even asynchronous HD videos are poor for that, while real world “zoom-interactions” are basically not useful at all for this processing. They can even make it worse: some milliseconds between an facial expression and the thing being said is enough to damage the bottom-up processing (generating noise that will in turn make the interpretations wrong). The same goes for sound nuances on the voice such as volume, pitch, intensity and micro pauses.

Not being able to generate this aspect of empathy could lead to a situation where we can rationalize the problems we are trying to discuss, but something will always be “feeling odd“; and no real connection will happen. A big part of our brain power used to maintain healthy social relationships cannot work under these circumstances; and it is the “invisible” part of the processing, making things even trickier (I can’t miss something that I do not even know existed).  Although it is only a paragraph in the book, it resonated a lot on my mind with the current situation of social distancing and zoom-only communication.

How to minimize this impact?

Picture of a bed with a coffee, a cupcake and a computer over it

Our brain has an amazing feature called Neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to undergo structural or physiological changes rewiring some pathways and circuits when needed. It means we can cultivate certain skills on purpose, almost like training a muscle (ok, awful analogy but I wanted to optimize time). Meditation helps a lot, by the way. 

In this case, we should be able to start some training for our top-down system, slow as it is, to try to cover up or to backfill for the lack of efficiency on the bottom-up creation of Emotional Empathy on this scenario.

This requires intentional efforts, such as: 

  • Thinking of self emotions
  • Thinking on others emotions
  • Labeling those emotions and talking about them, explicitly. Maybe even include a session on it into the periodic ceremonies of your projects. Or at least, ask how people are feeling!
  • Intentionally and consciously avoiding our own hypothesis of other people’s intentions and emotions to be taken for granted (i.e. “that email was sure sent to criticize me! I know it”).  

Another thing I found interesting is one of the several group consequences of this phenomenon: reaching consensus without speaking is possible in a on-site meeting. Everyone present on the meeting simply understands or “feels” that we got to an agreement without the need to say it. This same thing doesn’t happen often automatically on virtual meetings, so it is better if someone just speak up and wrap up what she or he thinks was the consensus, to make sure everyone in sync.

More technically, even if we acknowledge that no technology will fully substitute personal contact, there are different impacts on different media. I said in the beggning that videos are not good for that, but in comparison they are way better than texting, for instance.

If we want to convey subtle emotions and have discussions on on “hot topics”: 

  • Chats will be worse than emails, 
  • Emails will be worse than videos, 
  • Group videos will be worse than 1:1 videos. There is another study showing that needing to handle more than one face on a video call causes a lot of cognitive overload, making the empathy generation even weaker. 

I am not saying remote working is not here to stay, it probably is. But that we should be aware of some traps and work to overcome them. Our work environment cannot become a social media flame war, and people need to be treated with respect and empathy always.

Any other thoughts or ideas on how to create empathy on such environment? I would love to hear.

Cross posted on Linkedin, if you want to comment or share ideas, please go there: