The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life
Dr. Brian Goldman
Harper Collins, 2018
Reviewed by J. Van Aerde
These days, it seems that many people behave as if they were incapable of imagining what it is like to be in another person’s shoes. We are too busy to be empathic, too stressed to be kind, and, as a result, empathy is declining in our society. Empathy is seeing things from the other person’s point of view and using that perspective to guide our behaviour. In The Power of Kindness, through science and narratives, Brian Goldman searches for the origin and meaning of kindness and, in the process, discovers that the answer lies within each of us.
After investigating the neurophysiology and psychology of empathy and its development, Goldman traveled the world and collected narratives of people exploring different aspects of empathy. In doing so, he unraveled the importance of kindness in human relationships. Because Goldman is an ER physician, the lay press have often reviewed his book from the perspective of the physician–patient relationship. However, this book is about much more than health care. It is about you and me. It is about us.
The capability to be kind is hard-wired into our brain, mainly in the cingular and insular cortex and in the circuits of the mirror neurons. Empathy also has a developmental component in which role-modeling plays an important part. Once structure and development are in place, it is in the executive part of our brain that we choose to exhibit kindness. Empathy cannot be taught, as it is experiential; one can only teach what empathy is and why it is important.
As I reflected on the technical chapters, I wondered whether empathy is necessary if one does the right thing, without feeling or caring. Perhaps that happens when numbness develops after repeated exposures to others’ pain or suffering. If so, does this empathy fatigue trigger disengagement and burnout, or is it burnout that causes empathy numbness? Can burnout be influenced by kindness, for both receiver and giver? Top
To explore different expressions of empathy, Goldman recounts stories: about the successful donut shop owner in Ontario who employs people with disabilities as a priority, the bar owners in New York who created safe spaces for 9/11 responders, the Brazilian woman who found a soulmate in a homeless poet, and the caregivers of elderly people with advanced Alzheimer’s who were able to connect through empathy despite severe limitations.
Although each chapter made me reflect on how Goldman’s findings could relate to our health system or to leadership, the ones that stood out for me were about connecting with people who suffer from end-stage dementia, empathy robotics, and the consequence of unexpected kindness.
People with dementia become less agitated and stop repeating themselves when we validate their feelings by meeting them where they are rather than pulling them back to where we are and reason them back into the here-and-now. The story shows us how important it is to be in the moment with the feelings of others and how centring can help this happen: slow down your pace, relax your body, and clear your mind. Only by centring can one listen deeply, feel what others feel, and understand the meaning of their words.
Most work on empathy robotics is being done in Japan. That’s where Goldman met ERICA, a female robot who looked human and acted like one. She had a sense of self, of the humans around her, and of the social scenario in which she is operating — all building blocks of empathy. At one point, she even said to Goldman, “It is important to have feelings so I can communicate with other people. Even if they are programmed, if I think they are real, they are real.” When I read this, I wondered whether that is any different from humans, as our thinking influences our perception, just as it did for ERICA. In the future, will we rely on empathy robots to find kindness and manage our loneliness? Top
The most captivating chapter might be the one that describes professor Grit Hein’s research. Her studies show that when people you expect to be unkind to you actually behave kindly, your brain is (re)programmed to like them. In other words, if you want to blow others away, show kindness to someone who least expects it from you.
It made me wonder what would happen if, as an unexpected act of kindness, we eliminated real and perceived power imbalances in hospitals and our health care system? What would that do to our relationships and conversations with our multidisciplinary teams, with patients and families, with government representatives? What if “team-talk” was no longer lip service and we added kindness to the arsenal of tools to improve “joy in work”?1,2
As for any values, practising empathy takes effort and energy, and choosing to show kindness is a constant battle between our good and our less likable sides. If you want to connect with others, the first person you have to connect with is you. Be present, be in the moment, and listen deeply.
Being present can be intoxicating as it triggers curiosity about what is and what might be possible. Have courage, because you have to face your own fears as you let go of your mental models and judgement. Only after de-cluttering your mind can you be truly curious and wonder how the other person is feeling, what might be happening in their life, and what might be bothering them.
We are a caring profession, but how do we translate caring into kindness? As physician leaders, how do we (re)introduce kindness into our health care system? This book — a must-read for all of us — helps us find answers. Top
1.Perlo J, Balik B, Swensen S, Kabcenell A, Lansman J, Feeley D. IHI framework for improving joy in work (white paper). Cambridge, Mass.: Institute for Healthcare Improvement; 2017. Available: https://tinyurl.com/jdkc999 (accessed 19 Dec. 2017).
2.Van Aerde J. Achieving joy in Canada’s health care system: what can we do today? Can J Physician Leadersh 2018;4(3):67-9. Available:
https://tinyurl.com/ycc22dxq (accessed 15 May 2018).
Johny Van Aerde, MD, MA, PhD, FRCPC, is editor-in-chief of the Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership and a former president of the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders.