Welcome to the 4th post of the Journey in Dialog. Daniel Goleman devoted a chapter of his book on emotional intelligence to the roots of empathy.[1] He said that when we can identify with signals from others like tone of voice, shift of posture, even silence, and sense a kind of attunement with others, we are in touch with what it means to be truly human.

Empathy begins with infants and vividly expresses itself in the caring mother’s attunement with her child. Love making, at its best, is an act of mutual empathy involving a synchrony that yields deep rapport. When a doctor listens to us empathetically, a deeper level of disclosure occurs that enhances our healing. Empathy encourages the kind of communication that contributes to cooperation and even morality and justice.

Scientists tell us that human beings needed to learn to be mindful of others, to sense what was in the mind of others, in order to form the societies necessary for our survival and development. This capability, which required significant brain growth, probably differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Empathy helped us to build social systems in which to enjoy safer and more satisfying lives.

Psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham created a process called the Johari Window to help people better understand themselves and others. I used it in my consulting work to open up communication and to build a more open system organization.

Instruments can measure how open people are based on the extent to which they disclose to themselves and others, are blind to what others see, and are open to feedback from others in order to compare self-disclosure to the perceptions of others.

A graphic shows how much one is open, how much one hides from others, how much one is blind to self and others, and how much remains unknown.

Participants are often surprised at how small their open windows turn out to be. In a trusting environment, they discover that a more open window enhances self-awareness and relationships. The Johari Window process acknowledges that it is best that some things remain hidden. The goal is to be optimally open but not, as we used to say in our use of this process, unzipped.

The Johari concept is optimized when there is empathy among the participants. Dialog flourishes in an empathetic and open environment.

I need to add a few words of caution. We can draw the wrong conclusions about what is going on in others. There are those who master a type of empathy that can result in manipulation, even cruelty. Bad things can happen when vulnerabilities in an open environment are exploited. Dialog can be risky. This is one reason that many shy away from this level of communication.

However, the benefits of transformational relationships can outweigh the risks. It is a choice we all make when we seek to share meaning with one another.


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[1] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Why it can matter more than IQ