Grokking in fullness: the new empathy

As more and more people are experiencing dramatic shifts in their lives and businesses, and among friends, colleagues, family, I’m quick to respond using the phrase “I grok you in fullness” meaning, “I got it”, when they tell me or when I see them. Apparently I’m out of sync. According to a recent research report Today’s College Students Lack Empathy, they are less likely to “get” emotions of others than their counterparts from 20 and 30 years ago.

The grok phrasing recently reappeared in my language after seeing Avatar, last year’s blockbuster film.  Grok comes from Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land. Its Martian hero said, “I grok you in fullness”  to communicate his full understanding of another’s situation  (more on grok below).

Avatar takes place on Pandora, a lush green world inhabited by 7-foot blue skinned Na’vi. The Na’vi link to their environment using the long braided tentacles at the back of their head. To connect, they intertwine braids with each other, animals and plant life to physically bond to share energy, communicate, be one.  Grok.  Avatar2Beneath their sacred Hometree lies a resource – Unobtainium – coveted by miners who want it to take it without regard to the Na’vi culture and lifestyle in whatever way they can. Not grok.

As a Creativity Professional, change is not unfamiliar, I gently advocate for it. I help people use new ways of thinking and behaving to be resilient, to feel confident creating and adapting to new conditions, new futures.  Their discomfort in change does not escape.  I grok.  Those younger folk though, if this study findings are true, do not as much.

By nature, we empathically pick up on how others feel. Jeremy Rifkin wrote about mirror neurons, how our brains are wired to do that in his book the Empathic Civilization. Mirror neurons help to explain the adage monkey see, monkey do. (There’s 10-minute animated below that gives an overview).

I wonder if  college students lack empathy because it wasn’t shown in their developmental years, or if the degradation of food, water and air quality has impeded mirror neurons capacity. It’s possible that empathy develops greater strength as people gain wisdom through maturity and feel freer to use their right brain affective concrete awareness functions together with the left brain sequential abstract ones.

Whatever the case, I’m thinking we need a whole lot more grokking going on to honour the empathy and creativity inherent in the human spirit. Changes will continue to occur, and with it, the discomfort of adaptation. Different behaviours, tools and attitudes will replace what used to work to satisfy needs. You can count on that. You’ll be helping to make them up.

If we are looking to the youth to have empathy for others, they might need to have it modeled by leaders at school, at home, in business and government. You get what you give, right? Empathy can become part of business decision-making along with profit and planet. Youth may also need support for developing abilities to read body language, a right brain function. Is it possible through texting? Maybe in a few years.


Grok – From Wikipedia:

To grok (pronounced /ˈɡrɒk/) is to share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity. Author Robert A. Heinlein coined the term in his best-selling 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land. In Heinlein’s view, grokking is the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both the observer and the observed. From the novel:

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines grok as “to understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with” and “to empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment.” Other forms of the word include “groks” (present third person singular), “grokked” (past participle) and “grokking” (present participle).

Mirror Neurons

Thanks for inspiring the original ‘grok’ post to Alan Black who thought ‘grokking in fullness’ was a Torontonian phrase. The student empathy study followed only days later.

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