Empathy Has Decreased by 40% Since 2000 in College Students. What Can We Do About This?

I was at the Achievers Customer Experience Leadership Conference in Toronto in the fall and heard Celeste Headlee, award winning journalist speak on We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter. I was shocked when she said that empathy has decreased by 40% since 2000. Here is what the research revealed, “College students who hit campus after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them, according to a stunning new study presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science by University of Michigan researchers. It includes data from over 14,000 students.”

So why is empathy decreasing so much?

Active listening builds empathy.  Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The definition of listening is to give one’s attention to sound – paying attention to someone or something in order to hear a sound.

One of the reasons why empathy is decreasing is that technology is breaking down the emotional connection we have with other people and impacting our ability to listen and communicate clearly.  We don’t know how people are feeling when they send a text or email because we lose the most powerful part of the message: the non-verbal cues. The non-verbal cues are important for effective listening.  Research from Albert Mehrabian found that 80% to 90% of communication is non-verbal. Some other more contemporary researchers have disputed this, but the fact remains the majority of our communication is found in body language and tone of voice and not the actual words spoken.

Technology is more efficient in communicating messaging.  Behind a machine it is easier to fire off a message with a measure of control, but we miss the emotions behind it which is often the most powerful part of the message. We also lose the ability to see another person’s reaction to our message in real time. The other person can then carefully craft a response to us via text or email that lacks emotional cues. This creates a gap of communication. This gap needs to be addressed in communicating only via technology.

We are too distracted by technology and sending billions of texts and emails preventing us from actively listening to someone.  Our ability to focus on a conversation with one other person is challenging. “The telephone call is a dying institution. The number of text messages sent monthly in the U.S. exploded from 14 billion in 2000 to 188 billion in 2010, according to a Pew Institute survey, and the trend shows no signs of abating.”

If we are not willing to have a conversation with a person, then how are we going to understand them and have empathy?

Empathy is important for:

  1. Sparking innovation – Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, references the importance of empathy with his success at Microsoft.
  2. Building relationships, communication and problem solving
  3. Finding a resolution to conflict.
  4. Getting to know someone and being less judgmental. I agree with this Abraham Lincoln quote – “I don’t like that man, I need to get to know him better.”

Discover 5 ways to improve your empathy skills:

  1. Be present and in the moment with the person you are communicating with. Listen to hear instead of listening to respond.
  2. Don’t look at your phone or computer while you are in a meeting or talking to someone. Engage in the conversation you are having with that person.
  3. Have a no cell phone rule at your dinner table or in a meeting to spark conversation.
  4. Get curious vs. judgmental.
  5. Be self-aware to increase your listening skills daily. Are you talking more than your listening to your spouse, child, peer, friend, direct report, manager or customer? What can you do to be a better listener?

I am coaching several leaders who are working on better communication and empathy tools and the benefits are real.  Most importantly, as independent influencers and leaders we need to ask ourselves, “Are we really listening and building our connections with others or are we relying on the efficiency of technology to convey the majority of our messaging?” Great leaders and influencers manage both and are actively working on their listening and empathy skills.  Remember people don’t care how much you know or how efficient you are, they want to know how much you care. If you show people you care, you will be amazed at what they share with you.

To learn more about empathy and other emotional intelligence competencies, join us at one of our upcoming Half-Day Public Workshops in Phoenix, AZ.  This is a link to more information on the April 4th and August 22nd workshops. See you there!


About the Author

Bobi Seredich is a recognized speaker, author, trainer and successful entrepreneur specializing in leadership development. She has spent over 20 years of her career dedicated to creating, directing, writing and presenting leadership programs for top companies in the U.S. and around the world.

Bobi is the co-founder of the Southwest Institute for Emotional Intelligence and Managing Partner of EQ Inspirations. In 2001, she founded Equanimity, Inc. also known as EQ Speakers – a speakers’ bureau and leadership training company. It fast became a top speaker bureau that booked hundreds of speakers with large Fortune 500 clients. EQ Speakers was sold in 2012 and continues to be a leader in the industry.

Her book, Courage Does Not Always Roar – Ordinary Women with Extraordinary Courage, was published by Simple Truths in the spring of 2010. The book is a collection of her experiences and stories of women who have had the courage to overcome very difficult life events.

Her passion is to guide individuals and organizations to a higher performance level through her own business knowledge, inspirational stories and leadership emotional intelligence training. Bobi lives in Phoenix, AZ with her husband, Roy, and 6-year old twins, Alex and Gia.