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Empathy Scarcity - What Neuroscience Can Teach Us with Soraya Shaw
Episode 69th December 2022 • Be & Think in the House of Trust • Servane Mouazan
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In this episode of Be & Think in the House of Trust, I am speaking with Soraya Shaw, an MSc Applied Organisational Neuroscientist at Springboard Tribe.

Soraya uses evidence-based Neuroscience to enable leaders to create agile cultures where divergent thinking, strategic & innovative collaborations, open communications and well-being are valued, helping people thrive and bring all their brains to work.

Throughout this episode, we share nine things that neuroscience can teach us about empathy scarcity, and how it can help you and your business.

If you would like to find out more about Soraya and her work at Springboard Tribe, follow the links below to visit the website and connect. 


Highlights from this episode: 

(01:33) An interest in people 

(03:29) The difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion 

(07:34) Theory of Mind 

(11:16) Riddled with unconscious bias 

(12:40) Our brains are like our fingerprint 

(17:16) We absorb other people’s emotions 


Useful Links: 

Connect with Soraya on LinkedIn: Soraya Shaw MSc | LinkedIn 

Visit the website: Leadership Coaching with Neuroscience » Springboard Tribe 

Connect with Servane:



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Hi, I'm Servane, founder at Conscious Innovation, and this is Be and Think in the House of Trust podcast, for people who love to invest in social change, we explore what trust looks like, the stories we create in ourselves and around us to generate valuable relationships and conditions that Ignite impact.

Together we look at the beliefs, attitudes, and traits that transform people's lives and also bring them closer to each other. In this new episode of The House of Trust, I meet with Saraia Show MSC as she's an applied organizational neuroscientist, and together we discuss empathy scarcity in individuals and organizations and importantly, nine things we can do about it.

Empathy scarcity, what neuroscience can teach us. Mm. We read a lot about empathy, scarcity at leadership level, and the impact it has on senior leadership teams and how this empathy - or lack of empathy - has an impact as well on what we are meant to deliver, you know, in, uh, in our work, our community, um, our families, et cetera.

So, Hmm. I have today Soraya Shaw from Springboard and to, uh, help me think through that theme and I wonder, can you tell us a little bit about what your work entails?

So I basically have always been interested in psychology and in insight. Some people, my early career was in creative advertising, which was all about people.

And then I retrained and became an executive coach, which I did for yeah, many years. And then I knew I wanted to do something and I had the opportunity to be one of the, where there were 21 of us when we started to do a, uh, MSC and applied neuroscience and organizations. Since it's a little girl, I've been fascinated by the brain and, and what actually ticks.

So I took my master's and was one of the few people to actually finish it and pass it cuz it, I estimate was the most incredibly difficult thing I've ever done. But what it gives you is a huge new insight into how we operate as a human beings, what we actually need. And actually coming outta Covid and it's.

Perfectly placed really, because everyone is looking at, well, what does the new world of work look like? Is it hybrid? Is it flexible? What is it? It's a perfect opportunity to talk about what we as humans really need. So you know, it's building on the management theory, it's building on the psychology, behavioral science, all those, all those wonderful things.

But it's actually going, this is what's going on in your head. Uh, and as we know, we're all different. We're all neurodiverse. I mean, that's a big debate in itself. And so that's when it becomes, if we are going to move forward into this brave new world with technology, then I think under coming at it from a very different human perspective is incredibly important.

So that's what I do. Wow.

Wow. So I love what you say about what, what's going on in, in, in people's heads. . Yeah. It's not a foundation. And so I wonder what you make out of this empty thing. We hear everywhere. And maybe to start as, um, what you define, how do you define, say, so that we, we understand the same thing here,

I think that's really interesting because we do talk about empathizing a lot. We talk about psychological safety or neuro safety and all these, um, important things that we need. But I actually went back to the dictionary because I was, I also was listening to reading something about compassion, and so I was thinking to myself on a sec, I'm getting confused now.

You know, what's the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion? I'm not quite sure that I totally understand this, and when I looked at it, in a nutshell, sympathy is about, you know, you sympathize. I'm really sorry that. Happened to you that that's terrible. Empathy is when you really, uh, you almost put yourself in the other person's shoes and you can really sense what they need and what they feel.

But what I found very interesting, if you took it one step further with compassion, compassion builds on empathy, but it actually has an action component to it as well. So it's actually about, yeah, I hear what you're saying. I hear what you need and now that, let's go and do something about it. So I wonder as well.

Maybe there's a, this is just my raw thinking, you know, the, the conversation needs to kind of step up a bit because you can empathize with somebody. And I think we all know as, um, as working as executive coaches and working with people, we have to protect ourself because we can get quite damaged by other people's.

Emotions because we do empathize too much, but if you actually turn it into an action so it has a kind of, um, a result to it, that's where my thinking is starting to go around the whole kind of, um, empathy, scarcity, uh, route. Mm.

So if I hear you well, empathy would have been to understand the lived experience of someone else and yeah, you can't come back on the shoe story , and the compassion is doing that with an action or, or a, a, a, a presence, uh, a very much sort of a commitment to, to do or be something around.

Yep. Yep. Okay. Yep. So I suppose if you had, if you took it as we're talking about, you know, organizations and companies, it would be not you just caring about your colleagues or your leader or whoever, but you'd be saying, right, okay, I hear this. Now what are we gonna do about it? Hmm hmm.

So, what's going wrong with empathy at the moment you believe, you think?


know, I think that's, I think that's such an interesting, obviously you are asking it, so it is very interesting. But I think it's because we're coming outta Covid and I think there's something here about shared responsibility. I think there's a lot about, uh, you know, how leaders should be, or managers should be, or there's, there's a lot of how shoulds going on, and I think that we've forgotten that actually it's about shared responsibility.

Because we're all, uh, human and you are, no matter what your job title is, you are coming into, whether it's switching on your computer or walking through the door with, you know, your own issues or thoughts or concerns or excitements and, and positivity as well. So actually, I think there is something about it becoming a leveler as opposed to.

The shoulds? It should be. I think it should. I'm saying should. Here we are. I think it's more about us being compassionate about everybody and not just expecting that a certain level within an organization need to be totally responsible for it. I think this whole way of looking at self-managing flatter structures, the whole new way that we need to start considering about the world of work, that's when empathy actually, I think, comes in and takes on a different.


Um, what I'm hearing here is also looking at how responsibility, how we are, how we engage with the world as an individual. Yes. Yes, definitely. Yeah. Stepping back a little bit, and I, I'd love to come back on the shoes story, ,

you know, me and my shoes. I love my shoes, but yeah. Yeah.

And this is it. Sit as I, I could put myself or imagine myself in your shoes, but when I do, Actually still see me in your shoes.


That, that, that's true. I mean, there's something, there's a great thing in, uh, neuroscience world that's called Theory of Mind. Oh. And as human beings, we need to kind of, we're always thinking about what's the other person thinking? What are they doing? What we, you know, and it goes back to our kind of early evolution about are we.

So the brain always thinking about, are we safe here or do we need to go into fight or flight? All the things that we know or that, that level about the brain. Uh, so putting yourself in someone else's shoes is actually almost a, uh, an automatic thing that we probably all do without really being conscious of it.

Um, and it is trying to work out what's going on for that other person. Um, It. It, yes, as you say, quite rightly, it normally comes out that it's about me. Where's myself in that? Yeah. But I think it's also, you know, it's about practicing and learning about, well, how do I see if we all look at the world through our own lens, how can I step into that person's lens and see the world through their eyes?

So I, I hear there's an opportunity here. To listen to the others lived experience for, for us to realize, well, what is, what does it feel to be in your shoes with your feet? Exactly myself in that position. I can never physically put myself in that position, can I?

Well, well, no, it's, but it, it's just being aware of it.

So often I think we're, you know, we read all these things that's, you know, listen to people and talk to people and, um, they're all great things to do, but actually putting your emotions in there and putting, trying to strip away. Uh, the way that you view the world, I'm not saying it's easy or, or because that, you know, really getting to understand other people is not easy.

Um, as we know from coaching how, how, how much work you have to do and training you have to do into it, but it is just about giving the other person a chance to be seen. I think that's important.

So Wow. Giving the opportunity for the other person to be seen. So that's supposed, um, a lot of space, right?

Yeah. And giving

them, it's not making, I think we're terrible, aren't we? With Covid and everything that's happened. We, we make assumptions. Assumptions are safe for us. If you make assumption, you, you've got an answer, whether it's right or wrong, but you've, you've got something. And I, you know, maybe it is stripping away those assumptions and giving that person the space to be seen, to be heard.

All the etiquette. Sometimes, you know, you're taught in meetings, don't talk over people. Don't, uh, let people have their point of view. Encourage people to speak up. I think all the, those, um, skills help a person feel noticed, cared for, respected, valued connection, building trust. I mean, you know, God, I'm just writing a paper on trust at the moment from a neuroscience perspective, and it really is.

And the anchor of everything that we do.

Mm mm So there's, there's, um, that new element you're bringing or to, to build empathy and gain trust to strip in us from our, you know, our, our assumption costumes, you know, costumes with all the. Yeah. the assumption bells and whistles, I can't even pronounce that.

Yeah. Um, it's not getting rid, but, but suspending assumptions for a minute. Letting this, letting a bit of more space for the other person to come to come up to surface with all their lived experience so that you can have a little bit of, um, dense sense of who they.

Mm. And I think what you're doing as well from a neuro perspective is we know that we are riddled with unconscious bias and it only becomes conscious when you're actually in the situation.

You are aware of it. Yeah. So I think what you're doing by actually in your brain feel. Engaged and really focused. You know, we know that creating focus, I think in teams it increases engagement by about 300% or, or something like that. I can't remember exactly. Mm-hmm. . But when you have that focus, when you really feel you are dancing the same dance, it's so incredibly powerful and rewarding.

And I, and. You know, you, you, you never, I don't think in a relationship you ever go back from that because you've, you've connected it at a really emotional level that we don't do very often.

Oh, yes. I love that, that metaphor of the dance, because also we learn the same step. Yep. We should engage practically the same muscles, but we know we won't.

There will be something differently. Different and, and, you know, different level of sweat, different level of, of artistic expression. Mm-hmm. , but we'll, we'll moving towards the same direction. Yeah. Yep. So tell me, tell me more about, um, you said about, you know, the, we're all different, we'll worry differently.

And what, what, what does that knowledge help? Uh, do or think differently? I think

once you really understand that each one of us, you know, our brains are like, uh, our fingerprint, everyone is completely different, which is where I think neurodiversity, I've been talking to a lot of people recently who got dyslexia or ADHD or whatever, and, and they actually don't like being put into this box because they do have a genius way, a different way of thinking.

Um, and all of us do that at, at. Degree or another, and I wouldn't be surprised in 50 or 60 years time, they find out that all of us, you know, have got, well, we all know that our brains are wired differently anyway based on our dna, our knowledge, our engagement, our relationships. Um, and I think what it does is that.

From a practical point of view, you know, if you really want true diversity, having a group of different brains that think in a very different way is important for our future because of idea, ideas, innovation, connectedness. Um, as, as, um, technology takes over more and more and more. But I think it also makes life so rich because, you know, it's like when you go away on holiday and you are a completely.

Place than you are, you are used to and you meet different people. It's fascinating. You know, you are, you are different people from different walks of life with different attitudes for different accents, the different looks, the different ways of dressing with different, you know, it, it just makes us so rich as human beings to, to understand that that vastness of difference and experience and how it, how we can benefit from.

So that's interesting. So if you say that we are molding constantly, we're molded by our experience, your our thoughts or feeling or environment, et cetera, throughout the day, throughout our holidays, if we can Yeah. Pick them. Um, so any kind of experience mold us. Um, why is that, that some people feel like they're resisting that molding where they go back to work?

Resist that. Molly? I, uh, I think that's, I'm not sure. I haven't really thought I, from my angle, that I come from it. I think that you can, you know, we've all had about a fixed mindset and a growth mindset and, you know, coming from positivity and negativity. But I do think people default to. A way of being.

So by nature, I think I'm, I'm a very positive person and, and quite happy go lucky. Uh, and I know for instance, my husband is, is wonderful. He's grounded and, and very practical. So we make a really good team. You know, we bounce off each other in that way. And I, and so I think people do approach the world as people approach the world from their lens.

They may not feel comfortable with that change. That change may not resonate with them. It may not hold any value to them. It might be quite scary for them because we know that, you know, some people find change very, very different, difficult. So therefore you default back to your, your behavior that you know and.

Trust, because that's a, again, that's from a brain perspective, that means that you are safe. Yes. You know, you're quietening, you're amygdala, and, um, hopefully you're switching back on your neo cortex. But, so from a, from a, from a brain perspective, it, it makes complete sense why some people are more open to change your ideas or, or, or learning, taking on board different, different learnings, whereas other people resist.

And I, again, I think that's just human nature and I, I, I guess for us as, as coaches, what we've always done is we are helping people to gain insights, to change those mindsets. Mindsets are very interesting in, in, in how they can, how you can change them. You can change them quite simply, actually. It's quite fascinating and I think that that's something that we have done in our work.

We, we know it and we understand it very, very well, and it's given people the confidence really to be able to. And we are all going to be got obstacles around us. I mean, it's, it's, we can all put up barriers quite easily and it's really questioning or helping other people question whether those barriers are useful or they're not.

So I love here because you made the bridge between the trust that we have in others and the trust that is within. Are we in a safe space to change or not? And, and I also hear that we are quick to label people having a lack of empathy, but maybe we should maybe look deeper in there and see how safe do they feel and, mm.

In performing or trying out new things, you know, even as leaders, right. Well, I think that's quite interesting you just saying that because leadership, you assume that the person you are leading or your leader, whoever they might be, your manager, whatever, that they know the answers, they know what they're doing and, and you know, we know that their emotions can be picked up by people.

So easy. We absorb by the people's emotions. Very, very quickly. If you, if you, you know, we, if, if you think about mirror neurons and things like that, Again, they may be having a really bad day. They may not, you know, I was doing an imposter syndrome masterclass yesterday, and most of those people were all very similar, uh, and senior, and they class themselves as they have those days where they, you know, they walk into a room and they're like, what the hell am I doing here?

I, I'm an imposter. I'm a, a fraud. I shouldn't be here. But we never, you know, we always think about it about ourselves, but we're not thinking that actually the other people in the room or or on the end of the camera are actually experiencing exactly the same. Ah,

yes, yes. Handstand necessity to really stretch, you know, a little bit.

Time to think. Pause even in a time, scars life. Five minutes, really pause and gentle. So talking about, talking about pragmatic avenues to explore, uh, if we want to navigate empathy differently, what would be your quick, short, snappy suggestions?

So I, okay. I have, because we're all in this. Changing world that we are going through.

I think, I think our connected purpose is, is absolutely crucial if we're to have flatter structure and, and more self-management. And whether you're working hybrid or, or, or flexible or whatever it might be. Because we need that connectedness. We need that joint purpose, common purpose to be working towards.

Mm-hmm. . And I think what's very, very important is actually going back and I was doing a hybrid. Workshop last week with a, a huge, a charity, and we went back to what was their strategy, what's their purpose, what are their values? And, and how does that translate now, two, three years later? So therefore, how do they need to behave?

Because once we understand what the behaviors are and that builds the culture and the rituals, you can. You know what you are working with. People know where they are. People feel secure, they feel, uh, protected, I suppose, actually. So really that's my biggest things that it's about sharing and communicating and agreeing, you know, coming to a common.

Understanding even around the words, like you asking me, what's my definition of empathy, my definition could be very different to somebody else's. Mm-hmm. . Um, and I think just remembering the human needs, remembering what people have been through, because I think we are going to, well we are already, aren't we seeing some sort of effects of what happened, uh, because we, no one's ever been through it before.

So I think there needs to be that understanding there as. And joint. It's not just, you know, one way, it's, it's a, this complete, you know, 360 I think in any organization.

Mm. So I think there, there, what I'm hearing is it's a very deep necessity to pause and look at these foundations that these beliefs, these values, these, uh, narrative and stories that each and one of us.

Yeah, definitely. That's, that's good. It sounds like a good investment, fundamental investment, right?

I think so. I think it's very easy to be, I think you, we, I think we need, I think being, we need pragmatism somewhere, you know, we are emotional, we driven by our emotions, but if we understand why those emotions manifest and what they actually mean, then I think you can start shaping something very differently.

Yeah. And engage people along the way to build

Exactly, exactly,

exactly. Yeah. Collect purpose. Wonderful Soia. I know it's quick and short and snappy, but we want to make people hungry for more. And so we'll be sharing your, your, uh, your websites and all, uh, datas that people need to engage with you. So I was a pleasure talking to you in the House of Trust today.

Thank you so

much. It's always a pleasure to talk to you and if I could just encourage people either to, um, sign up to my LinkedIn or the newsletter via the website, because what I try and do is do regular updates on the brand new research that comes through and new ways that we can actually apply it.

So if you are interested, then, then that's the kind of place to start.

I'll wait to start. Fantastic. Thank you. So Ryan.

All right. Thank you. Speak to you later. Take care.

Thank you again everybody for listening to that new thinking conversation in the House of Trust. In our next episode, we will be talking to Emilie Goodall, who sees finance as a forest for positive change and works to that end in various roles at the intersection of private, public, and civil society.

Reflecting on the work in social finance and the impact it has in society, Emilie reflects on what it means to be an. And how much you can show up and be in service to others when you are a genuine, active listener in all forms of dialogue and connections. I'm really looking forward to this. The show is available to listen to anywhere you can find podcasts, and it's completely free and for more insights, events and resources, you can head to my website and subscribe to my regular conscious innovation updates. Goodbye.



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