The Skinny Professor recently Twittered (is that a verb?) on a posting by Jason Calacanis about empathy and living life online. Calacanis’ premise is that online communication strips us of the ability to read body language and tone of voice, and so we begin to lose empathy for those we know online. As a result, we behave in uncivilized ways, including name calling and bullying. 

Empathy is an important skill, one of the five key dimensions of emotional intelligence (EI). Daniel Goleman, one of the foremost EI researchers, believes emotional intelligence can predict the difference between highly successful and average senior managers. EI is defined as the ability to identify and manage both our own emotions and those of others. We need empathy to effectively function in social environments. If you have ever been the recipient of a “nasty gram” (an email sent by an annoyed colleague), or caught in the middle of an email “flame war”, or experience a series of negative or nasty blog comments, you have experienced the stress caused by lack of empathy.

As our working world becomes more culturally and geographically diverse , we are going to need more empathy for others  in order to bridge the physical and cultural gaps. If technology strips empathy from our communication, how are our organizations going to cope with the increasing stress? I don’t have an answer for this question. I only know that my own policy is to not deal with emotional or controversial topics online. No emails, no text messages, no facebook, no IM. If its important it needs to be face to face, or at worst, on the telephone.  I believe that you can only develop empathy through practice, face to face. And practice is hard work.

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