How an absence of empathy can sabotage our success
a quick synopsis
Contextual Myopia is a bias in thinking where how we process or assimilate information, generate assumptions, reach conclusions or govern behavior is disproportionately (or even exclusively) informed by our current context.
This often causes us to think and behave in ways that are sometimes damaging because they don’t adequately account for diverse perspectives.
a little more explanation
“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.”
This popular idiom has at its heart a single idea… that empathy, a determination to more deeply consider someone’s circumstances, should be a required precursor to forming any sort of judgment against that person.
After all, how can we possibly understand why a person behaves the way they do without first understanding the complexities of all that led up to that behavior? There are so many variables, so much history, so much experience, so much emotion, so much processing, so many external and internal triggers and influencers that we can hardly hope to adequately understand them enough to judge them.
It’s a profound and prudent perspective.
But the point isn’t that we shouldn’t try to understand, because our own behaviors and decisions must be based on solid reasoning, an informed perspective, and foundational principles.
The problem is that each of us, especially when acting “in the moment” and not in a state of active, objective awareness, tend to suffer from what I call Contextual Myopia.
We become myopic (or single-sighted—lacking imagination and foresight) and only see the context that we’re in.
We’re blinded by the immediacy of our current situation, with all its inherent nuances, complexities, and demands. This is a deeper form of Recency Effect (another principle in the knowledge base).
by way of illustration
This happens frequently in the workplace. When someone becomes a boss, they suddenly forget what it was like to be just an employee. They often even begin to exhibit the very same behaviors that were so frustrating to them before. It’s like all that experience and knowledge and perspective suddenly evaporates once their context changes, and they begin to exhibit that same bad-boss behavior that they swore they would change.
Parents do this too. Once you become a parent, you suddenly forget what it was like to be a kid.
It’s as though you’ve been hit upside the head with a mallet, creating an inability to empathize with someone in another context. It’s a symptom that tends to worsen over time.
Kids do this too. They’ll be in a situation which causes them pain… maybe it’s being bullied, or made fun of, or not properly recognized, or so many other things. But once the “tables are turned” they do the very same thing.
It happens to all of us, all of the time. It’s just human nature.
conscious context switching
It’s not that we’re incapable of remembering, but it requires conscious context switching. It requires us to unload from our awareness our current context and reload to our awareness an old (or alternate) context. We draw from our memory of past experiences and lessons we’ve learned. More difficult still if it’s a context we’re not familiar with, a new context which must be manufactured with new information.
An exercise that we do with leaders illustrates the need for context switching. If you ask a boss what drove them crazy as an employee and get them to make a list, then get them to make a second list, right next to it, of their current behaviors, all of a sudden they start recognizing similarities.
You can do this with parents too. You should try it for your current context. Make a list of the things you loved and hated when you were in an adjacent context, and then describe your behaviors in your current context. How well are your current behaviors informed by your past experience?
We do have the ability, in moments of clarity and foresight, to recall a prior context. But in the moment—in the down-and-dirty-day-to-day decisions that tend to monopolize our lives—you’ll find that you (and others) often suffer from this type of contextual myopia.
It’s for this reason that when you’re making decisions, judgments, or doing anything that is going to have a high-degree of impact on others, then you should take a moment to “walk in their shoes.” Reload that context into memory. If you find a general inability to empathize with their situation, ask questions. Go into discovery mode and make sure you understand those peripheral contexts.
Otherwise, your behaviors and decisions will often act in opposition to your intent. They’ll create barriers and emotional distance. “You just don’t understand” will be the default thought, spoken or not.
rapid context switching
Contextual myopia is one of the primary plagues of unhealthy relationships. Whether it’s a marital relationship, a parent-child relationship, an employee relationship, or even a customer relationship, our inability (or refusal) to adequately empathize with the other side causes each side to entrench themselves in their position until they reach an impasse.
Healthy relationships require rapid context switching.
Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to actively contain both contexts in our awareness at once. At any given time one will dominate the other, and the one that dominates is usually the one that you’re closest to.
People who are good at rapid context switching develop the mental muscle to rapidly evacuate and unload their current context and reload the other context. They can then measure their thoughts against it the new context. They go back and forth, sometimes quite quickly, while in a discussion.
Their ability to demonstrate understanding serves to weaken the defensive nature of the other party, allowing both to more quickly reach a place of mutual respect and understanding. They can then reach an outcome that is mutually beneficial.
now how to apply this!
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Understanding the existence and impact of contextual myopia—how it can often create barriers between you and those you are trying to influence as well as barriers to your ability to progress—is the first step.
The best defense against contextual myopia is humility. If you cultivate a healthy respect for others, and harbor a healthy degree of self-doubt, you’ll naturally always seek a more informed position before acting or judging.
Over time you begin to build an instinctual habit of seeking first to understand. It’s a muscle that develops until it becomes an automated response.
In the meantime, focus on assuming an attitude of “I might not adequately understand” and force yourself to seek that understanding. Ask questions. Get feedback. And try to fully unload your current context, so that the new context you’re trying to mentally simulate isn’t unduly influenced by the rubble and remnants of the context you’re currently in. Otherwise, you’ll suffer from assimilation bias, and your efforts to understand will be entirely unsuccessful.
To truly understand someone else’s position, you first have to “forget” your own.
This is an especially difficult situation for parents, because even when you recognize your contextual myopia, you feel like you are representing a much more informed position. After all, now you have the experience, knowledge, and understanding needed to see the shortcomings of a child’s perspective.
But this isn’t about who is right and who is wrong, it’s about making sure that we govern and behave with empathy so that we can truly influence.
When you consciously and deliberately force yourself back into their shoes, you’re suddenly more capable of finding either an acceptable middle-ground or a non-threatening path that will help them get from here to there.
It’s when we act in ignorance of their context that we sow the seeds of rebellion and build barricades of emotional inaccessibility. When they think, “you don’t understand,” the default conclusion is, “therefore, what you’re saying is wrong.”
When you take that “you don’t understand” away and thoroughly and convincingly (and authentically) represent that you do, you take away the foundation of that resistance.
You’re able to represent a position that they can now see, because you’ve taken the time to communicate it from a shared foundation (their context). You also build trust, because your kids know that you govern out of love and respect, actively empathizing with them.
It’s funny, because as parents, it’s often easy to forget that our kids will grow up and hold us accountable for our behaviors.
We become blind while in the context of “I’m the boss, I’m the parent, and your place is to obey.” We adopt the “because I said so” mentality instead of recognizing that these human beings deserve our utmost respect. Great care must be taken, because this is a temporary stewardship that we will ultimately be held accountable for.
Conscientiously stepping out of the “I’m the boss” mode and into the mode of “I’m a friend who has seen this path, and now want to guide you in love to the best possible outcome” is what leads to a better way to govern our homes.
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Leaders have to actively remember that the context they see most clearly is the one they’re currently in. Because of that, their decisions are going to be disproportionately impacted by that perspective. But healthier choices and healthier relationships stem from seeking first to understand.
If you have relationships with those under your stewardship that are suffering, you may want to examine your behaviors under the lens of contextual myopia. It very well could be that they’ve become entrenched in the “you don’t get it” mindset, and you’ve created some emotional distance that will need to be bridged for you to be able to actively influence them again.
When those under your stewardship sense that you have the ability to actively empathize with their position and represent that position to others, you gain their trust, you win their respect, and with it comes a more frictionless leadership experience. In other words, they’ll be willing to follow you and work for you because they know you care. You’ve connected with them on an emotional level.
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The employee experience
The customer experience
It’s also important to know that there are lots of business decisions that are made out of contextual myopia. It very well may be plaguing some of your customer processes, policies, and procedures, leading to a sub-optimal customer experience. Take the time to create a customer journey map, and pay attention to the customer experience (from their context).
So often we see the customer experience deteriorate under the barrage of this bias of contextual myopia, where organizational functions and decisions are primarily optimized to make things easier for the employer, and not better for the customer.
An organization is benefited greatly by identifying those employees with a penchant for empathy, an innate ability to understand others as a primary soft-skill, and giving them adequate opportunity to influence the organization.
diversity and inclusion
The effects of contextual myopia illustrate why it’s so important to ensure our leadership and decision-making teams enjoy adequate diversity. You’re essentially working to manufacture a scenario where as many contexts as possible can be represented.
It’s a powerful tool for running a healthy, adaptive organization.
market awareness and external indicators
It pays to remember that contextual myopia often serves to insulate our awareness against the market indicators that might suggest the need to adapt, evolve, or even pivot.
It’s been said that we should fall in love with a problem, not a solution. Kodak is a good example of this. They fell in love with their solution—easy-to-operate cameras that use film that requires developing and printing—and missed the digital camera opportunity. By the time they switched solutions, it was too late. Falling in love with the solution is a form of contextual myopia that causes us to obsess over the solutions we’ve already invented. We fail to see when those solutions become obsolete.
We fail to see a competitor increasing their level of threat, a change in the market or in the buying process, or an opportunity. That’s because we’re blinded by our current context—usually, “how we currently solve this problem.”
Interestingly, an engineer at Kodak developed the very first digital camera in 1975. However, the approach that Kodak took was to first keep it quiet, then to sell it to another company, and then to use digital to improve print photos. Their existing solution remained the focus. A better approach would have been to fall in love with the problem and make that the focus, allowing for different solutions to come to the forefront as technologies changed and the market followed.
It’s this diversity of thinking that helps our organizations adapt and evolve in an increasingly fast-moving market.