What do you think is more important for Humanity to Thrive – Empathy or Reason?

I read this question on a LinkedIn group forum recently and it got me thinking, especially in light of my previous two blogs regarding aligning with your true purpose through the work you do. (Here’s one of those blogs FYI Authenticity-Allowing your Highest Expression of Yourself to Shine )

EmpathyJust today I was reading a post from Linda J. Ferguson PhD (http://www.lindajferguson.com) on the subject of showing empathy at the very deepest level in our work. The only catch is… you might never know when that opportunity to connect at such a deep level with another human being might appear. Often that opportunity may offer itself to you when you least expect it. Will you be ready for it when that happens? Or will you let the moment pass unnoticed? Will reason get in the way of empathy, or will empathy allow you to connect with someone at a time when it is most significant to them?

Here’s what Linda Ferguson has to say on the subject … “Regardless of whether you have a low skilled or high paying job, your job can provide an opportunity to live with purpose and share your gifts. Your life purpose may unfold at one particular place at one particular time to support someone in need.

I once met a woman who was a flight attendant in the early 2000’s.  One night after her flight had landed and all the crew finished cleaning the cabin, she was the last to leave except for the flight captain.  He was finishing his paperwork in the cockpit.  She stopped to say goodnight to him before going to the hotel for her overnight layover.

He called her into the cockpit saying he needed to talk.  She didn’t have anything better to do that night, so she sat down to listen.  As the captain unloaded a whole life’s worth of regrets and reflections, she thought perhaps he was going through a divorce or some major life shift.  She sensed he had some urgency to ‘get his life right’ or figure out his life in some significant way.  After an hour and a half of talking, the captain thanked her for listening.  She said she was glad to listen and hoped it helped him. 

She then left to go to her hotel.  That night was Mon. Sept. 10th, 2001. She worked for American Airlines.

World Trade Centre Attack 9-11The next morning she turned on the TV as she was getting dressed for work.  To her horror she saw the burning World Trade Centre in New York.  She sat down in disbelief.  Then the flight number came up showing the plane that had hit the building.  It was the same plane that the captain piloted.

Her shock turned to deep sadness as she watched the rest of the morning.  She told me that later that week she felt a deep gladness she had been able to help the pilot the night before his death.  She felt in some way he had found greater inner peace.  He apparently had some intuition that he needed to get his life sorted out that night.

You never know when taking a little extra time to help a co-worker will make all the difference.  You never know when you share your gifts, what impact it will have on someone.

So regardless of the type of work you do, when you take the time to listen, be attentive, or be supportive, you may offer that one thing that your customer or colleague needs to know or hear…”

In the words of Abraham Lincoln…“Always prepare yourself.  You never know when you’ll be called to do great things.”

Now what Linda says touches on a very deep philosophical question about being ready to step up when called. There is an excellent book written about this titled “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” by Mitch Albom (author of international best seller ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’).The Five People You Meet in Heaven

What Mitch writes about is the concept that maybe Heaven isn’t a lush Garden of Eden, but maybe it is just a place where your earthly life is recounted to you through the eyes of just five people whose lives you touched in a very special way before they too had passed on. Those people may be close loved ones or they may even be strangers you meet along the way while on your life’s journey. Strangers you don’t even recall meeting, but for some unknown reason one small act of kindness from you made a deep and lasting impact on their lives in a way that you never knew in your lifetime. It may even have been at a point in their life that was pivotal for them in a deeply significant way in almost a ‘Sliding Doors/ Parallel Universe’ type of scenario. And then as they meet with you again in the hereafter and recount their story to you and the way that your chance meeting with them changed the course of their life in a deeply significant and uplifting way, everything floods back to you as you realise your own life had meaning in ways you never had thought possible when you were alive.

During your own lifetime, you may even have pondered the following questions… “Does my life have meaning?”… or… “What is the meaning of my life?”

And now finally after your life has been lived, you discover that it did, but in not the way that you thought.

In sharing these stories with you I do not wish to imply that reason should not share equal place with empathy in the work we do as we live out our lives. Reason has a huge role to play in keeping us safe from harm individually and to ensuring that the decisions we make give proper balance to our personal quests of accomplishment and achievement. And reason helps to inspire the human race to greatness in its endeavours.

But given that my area of specialty is language and its influence in its many forms, it forces me to reconsider the description of ourselves as ‘The Human Race.’ Without us even realising it, there is another subtle meaning that we might be missing here when we describe ourselves in such terms.

Maybe it is now time to question more deeply the description we give ourselves as participants on Earth. Should we continue to describe ourselves as The Human Race? What about the alternative – Humankind?

And those two descriptions are different in even more subtle ways. i.e. We do not describe ourselves as ‘Human Race’ but ‘The Human Race’ as if through by some trick of its linguistic form it is perceived as somehow being separate to us by adding the ‘The’ to the phrase. And yet the alternative description, is just plain “Humankind” when talking about our species collectively, in other words – you and me.

Now, if for one minute when you read this latest post of mine, you think that Brian Clark, executive coach, profiler and corporate consultant has finally lost his marbles and joined the ranks of the mountaintop dwellers sitting cross legged and out of touch with the ‘real world’… I want to challenge you right here and now to ask yourself… “What actually is the ‘real’ world?” Surely the real world for you and me and all of us for that matter, is the one we make through the lives we choose to lead and the way we do our work? In doing that we make our own reality, and a huge part of that reality is the people we meet along the way.

So maybe the next action you take at work, or the next person you meet on that journey, or the next colleague you seek to understand at a deeper level, is actually your chance to give meaning to your life. It was for the flight attendant talking to the captain of the ill-fated American Airlines flight the night before 9/11. She could just as easily have chosen to ignore the opportunity to respond to someone needing an ear at that moment because she was eager in her ‘race’ to get away from work and chill out at the hotel layover nearby. But she didn’t, and maybe because of her one act of empathy –one act of ‘human-kindness’ if you will – that captain will be one of those five people whom this flight attendant will meet when she gets to Heaven.

Please think about it. And think too about how you can make a difference tomorrow at your place of work, and with the people whose lives you touch.

As always I look forward to your comments above, and I am happy to respond to you directly should you wish to email me at brian@precisionprofiling.com.au … and if you know of friends and colleagues whom you believe would appreciate thinking about the questions I have raised in this post, please take action and share this with them now. I feel we need to be having these conversations. I hope you do too.

In the meantime, let’s seek to understand more and judge less. – Brian

Precision Profiling What Makes You Tick? Through ‘Motivational Fingerprinting’ we help you and your staff to uncover why you do what you do and most importantly, which patterns can lead to your success, and which ones might be holding you back.

Photo Credit – World Trade Centre Attack – Carmen Taylor, AP

About Brian Clark

Brian Clark is the principal director of Precision Profiling®.

He is a renowned practitioner, writer and speaker on building total customer cultures; values driven leadership and world best practice strategy and implementation.

He has been a guest lecturer on world best practice for the executive management programme at Monash University’s business college (Mt Eliza campus); an adviser to and key note speaker for the Singapore Productivity Association and a consultant to many major Australian and overseas corporations and government departments.

Read more about Brian Clark Here


  1. Cary Mendes says:

    Awesome post.

  2. Roy Fitzgerald says:

    This is fairly emotive and based on warm fuzzy I am an angel stuff. It sells on the talking circuit and sells books but reasoning is nothing more than a higher plane of thinking. Empathy is having an awareness of another’s position. One may not feel sorry for a person with a stone in their shoe that is causing injury or pain but one may have an empathetic understanding of the dilemma. Reasoning is the analysis and evaluation of why a person would continue to walk with a stone in the shoe when a solution is available. Don’t get too caught up in human predicaments – cognitive complexity makes things more entwined than they really are. The more one knows the more complex things become.

    • Thanks for your comments Roy and your considered input into the subject. I must admit I too have been a ‘reason’ type of guy for 30years of my career, but the older I get the more I realise that there is a deeper level of meaning behind all of that reasoning and for me it peels back layers that can’t be explained away cognitively. There is a great book just come out by Dr Joe Gallenberger called “Inner Vegas” that straddles both approaches. Cheers

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  6. Olaf de Hemmer says:

    I believe asking this question is enough to show that reasoning is desperately trying to include empathy, no ?

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