I’ve been working with a group recently who have been wrangling with empathy.
They have a colleague who is exceptional at what he does, but under stress becomes direct, forceful and controlling. He had taken on considerable responsibility on behalf of the group – at their request – and so was indeed defaulting to these behaviours most of the time.
His colleagues felt sympathy for his experience, so excused this behaviour for months on end. However the toll this was taking on everyone in the situation was becoming too significant to ignore.
Sometimes, empathy is understanding someone’s situation and the pain they are in, whilst simultaneously showing them the pain they are causing. In this holding, by recognising they are both the victim and the persecutor, the cycle of abuse may stop. As painful and as shaming as this can feel, it is also incredibly empowering to remind people of their choice to change.
So how do we cultivate the type of empathy that allows us to hold others in their pain, but not become lost in it ourselves?
Daniel Goleman defines three types of empathy:
Cognitive empathy – the ability to understand another persons’ perspective
Emotional empathy – the ability to feel what someone else feels.
Empathetic concern – the ability to sense what another person needs from you.
With cognitive empathy – we do not feel another’s emotions – but we are able to understand what drives and motivates them, why they feel what they feel, and convert that into meaningful communication. Metaphorically – cognitive empathy is looking at someone in a pit of despair and knowing why they are in the pit, how they dug themselves such a big hole, and communicating a meaningful plan for crawling out of it.
Emotional empathy is sympathy. It’s feeling others’ feelings. Their highs, their lows. In the example of our pit – it’s getting right in there with them. We can all have sympathy for each other right now in social isolation. We all share sympathy and feel sadness for those who have lost through this time – their loved ones, their livelihoods, their way of life.
Empathetic concern is sensing what others feel just enough so that you can identify what they need from you. Getting this balance right can be tricky. In the helping professions, too much empathy can lead to compassion fatigue. In executives, it can create distracting feelings of anxiety that put the needs of the individual above the needs of the group. Back at our pit – it’s standing on the edge of it and offering your hand so that you may help hoist someone out of it. It’s keeping yourself at a safe distance, staying calm, and helping wisely.
“Getting a grip on our impulse to empathise with other peoples’ feelings can help us make better decisions when someone’s emotional flood threatens to overwhelm us” (Goleman, 2017, P.10).
So what has happened with my client? Through a process of supported feedback, they have been able to work together as a group to recognise the situation he was in, help him understand what behaviour needed to change, and reposition him in the business so that he is no longer put in such a challenging position. Every single member of that group has leveraged empathy to share both compassion and take accountability for their actions that created the situation.
Empathy is inspiring. Empathy allows people to maintain a sense of self whilst simultaneously bringing people closer together. Empathy has the power to change hearts and minds.
Goleman, D. “What is Empathy” (pp.1-11). In HBR’ Emotional Intelligence Series, Empathy, 2017, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, hbr.org.