The Risk of Misguided Empathy
Can only good things come from empathy? Maybe not!! But it’s certainly worth discussing. Empathy makes up a major part of our interaction with others and it is what enables us to create better relationships both personally and professionally, so let’s first look at what empathy is and why it’s important.
According to American Professor, Brené Brown, “It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of, you’re not alone.”
A more formal definition is from the Cambridge Dictionary, “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.” So empathy allows us to not only understand what someone is saying and how they may be feeling, but it also helps us to feel with them so that our desire to help them is strong.
The three components of empathy that facilitate this are:
Cognitive Empathy is about “getting into someone’s head.” Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence states that empathy is “simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking.”
Emotional Empathy creates rapport and chemistry. Daniel Goleman states “When you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.”
Empathic Concern goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings. It provides the “I want to help you out” message.
Empathy is also a key component of the Emotional Intelligence structure and whether you refer to empathy as an idea, a skill, a behavior or just a tool, it must be used the right way.
Please note that not every circumstance requires that we use all components, but at times, depending on the circumstances, using cognitive empathy without the emotional component can make us appear distant.
Although research is consistently being done in the area of empathy, I have come across literature claiming that empathy can be deliberately used to take advantage of others, but if it is being used this way, it doesn’t really capture the true essence of what empathy really is. Even if we remove attempts to take advantage of others from the argument, there are more subtle cases, also deliberate, that could still be selfish. This involves persons using empathy to specifically make themselves feel less alone. Is there a real purpose here? Additionally, how would these empathizers feel if the validation for helping someone was not forthcoming? While it is true that Cognitive Empathy helps to acquire a general understanding of the views and perceptions of others and you may have even helped them (Empathic Concern), the emotional component may be missing!!
Emotional Empathy allows us to “feel” what the other person is feeling. There is a sense of trust being created and this is what helps us to develop closer personal relationships. When we naturally feel what the other person is feeling, our mirror neurons are at work. Mirror Neurons are neurological structures in our brain that enables us to receive and interpret a motor act (can be a facial expression or gesture). When we are observing a frown, for example, the same regions of our brain become activated and we tend to do the same. The findings on mirror neutrons suggest that they play a key role in our ability to empathize and socialize with others.
The third component of empathy, Empathic Concern, has a strong connection with the action that you take. “I want to help you out based on what you are going through!!” HOW am I going to do this is the question that I need to ask here. With all the empathy around, we may want to do all that we can but how do we know if the type of help we are giving is the best for the person or for us? For example, when we give money to someone, do we ever question if we are giving to a solution or just giving it because they need it?
Even when we mean well, there are times when “helping” may not be helping at all, even when all of the components of empathy are in motion.
Let’s look at some scenarios where this can happen:
- If we are consistently around painful situations such as in a hospital setting, these situations, especially when healthcare workers empathize heavily with patients, can at times, affect them personally and possibly lead to emotional exhaustion (as we have seen in this pandemic). We have to be aware of the extent to which we should be emotionally drawn into other people’s lives even when it is our duty to help.
- A manager who wants to empathize so much that when an employee comes to them with a problem, they solve the problem for them. Does this sound familiar? If one of the goals of leadership is to develop employees, this will not do it. In the next year, these employees would not have developed their level of initiative to the level they should. Feeling sorry for people is not the same as actually helping them. This is also where regular coaching by leaders can have its benefits because coaching is really about encouraging people to solve problems themselves by guiding them through a process of questioning and listening to ensure that they are on the right path.
- What about those who may be empathizing with one side of an argument. There are two possible issues here. The first is that the empathizer may see the other side as unfair or possibly even malevolent, and secondly, that side may feel left out, leading to hurt feelings and possible retaliation. Sometimes the very best of us can have people against us because it is not always possible to satisfy both sides. Fritz Breithaupt, Author of “The Dark Sides of Empathy” states that “people often commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of over-identification and a desire to increase empathy.” A possible solution is to at least listen to perspectives from both sides and improve the conversation. Employees, for example, generally tend to be more compliant and commit to action if their views are heard. Similarly, in customer service, a customer may not get what they want but what is worse is when they are not kept informed.
Dealing with these types of scenarios requires that we go a step further, meaning that empathy must be combined with other skills. This is where Emotional Intelligence is critical because it combines empathy with self-awareness, self-regulation and social skills. Together, they can have a tremendous impact on the outcome for both you and those with whom you interact.
Always remember that the goal of communication is to increase your success rate. It will never get to 100% but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to be better. Empathy is one of the factors that will help us to get there. As I mentioned before, we need not use every component of empathy in every situation but it is important that we understand how to use the components or we can lead ourselves astray. There are certainly times when only the cognitive component is needed when all you have to do is understand, but at times, we may have to add emotional empathy and empathic concern as well. The goal is to know when to apply each one. This will help us to connect and it is one of the many ways we form strong bonds. It involves not only thinking but feeling as well. However, it needs to be used consistently in order for it to become a habit if we are to lead more fulfilling and purpose-driven lives.
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Tony Ragoonanan is the Founder of V-Formation Training and Development Professional focusing on bringing authenticity to communication, teamwork and the Performance Management process.
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