Empaths can’t seem to get enough empathy – get some here!
10. Empathy versus bullying: in mud wrestling with a pig, everyone gets dirty – and the pig likes it. How to deal with bullying without becoming a bully? Set firm limits – set firm boundaries – thus far and no further! Being empathic does NOT mean giving up the right to self defense. It means listening carefully, and responding accordingly.
Empathy is the emotional equivalent of jujitsu – use the aggressor’s energy to send him flying the other way. Being empathic does not mean being nice, agreeable, or even being disagreeable. It means knowing what the other person is experiencing because one experiences it too as a sample or trace affect. By all means, try to be friends: “Courtesy don’t cost ya nothin’.” Make an extra effort – and go the extra mile. But do not surrender one’s integrity or basic human values. However, taking a walk in the other person’s shoes applies to the enemy too. It is called “Red Team” – think like the other side. Are they angry? Fearful? Sad? Enthusiastic? Empathy gives one access to what is going on “over there.”
Power and force are inversely proportional. As the bully’s power goes down, the risk of the use of force [violence] increases. Empathy is powerful, and if necessary it meets force with force. But then empathy is no longer empathy; it is empathy in the form of a breakdown of empathy. The “empathic” response to an attack is to “neutralize” the attack and be empathic with the survivors. You knew that, right? Empathy consists in restoring the boundaries and integrity to the situation.
9. There is enough empathy to go around. Granted, it does not seem that way. It seems that the world is experiencing a scarcity of empathy – and no one is saying the world is a sufficiently empathic place. Consider an analogy. You know how we can feed everyone on the planet? Thanks to agribusiness, “miracle” seeds, and green revolution, enough food is produced so that people do not have to go hungry? Yet people are starving. They are starving in Yemen, Africa, Asia – they are starving in Chicago, too.
Why? Politics in the pejorative sense of the word: bad behavior on the part of people, aggression, withholding, and violence. The food is badly distributed. Now apply the same idea to empathy.
There is enough empathy to go around – but it is badly distributed due to bad behavior and politics in the pejorative sense. Drive out the aggression, bullying, shaming, integrity outages, and so on, and empathy naturally comes forth. People are naturally empathic, and the empathy expands if one gives them space to let it expand.
8. Empathy is not an “on off” switch. Empathy is [like] a dimmer, a tuner. Dial it up or dial it down. We tend to think of empathy as an “on off” switch. Turn it on for friends, the home team, the in crowd; turn it off for opponents, the competition, the outsiders. However, empathy is a dial or tuner – turn it up or down gradually depending on the situation.
The surgeon has to turn his empathy way down in order to operate on the human body as a biological system; but the surgeon never forgets that the operation is occurring so that the patient can return to his or her family and friends as a whole human being. This “dialing up” or “dialing down” does not come naturally (whereas “on” or “off” seems to be the common reaction). That is why training and practice are needed.
If I can cross the street to avoid the homeless person and thereby regulate my empathy downward; and I can also cross the street in the other direction and buy Streetwise or give her a shrink-wrapped snack bar.
Approaching empathy as a tuner or dial that expands or contracts one’s openness to the experiences of the other person (rather than an “on-off” switch), shows the way to avoiding being overwhelmed by the other’s difficult experience and the accompanying burn out, “compassion fatigue,” or empathic distress. Dial down the exposure. Take a sample and a vicarious experience. Put one’s toe or ankle in the water rather than jump in up to one’s neck.
7. The poet Robert Frost wrote: Good fences make good neighbors. There is a gate in the fence [a fence, not a wall] and over the gate is the word “empathy.” Empathy is all about boundaries. Empathy is all about moving across the boundary between self and other.
The boundary is not a wall, but a semi-permeable membrane that allows communication of feelings, thoughts, intentions, and so on. As noted above, the poet Robert Frost asserts that good fences make good neighbors. But fences are not walls. Fences have gates in them. Over the gate is inscribed the word “empathy,” which invites visits across the boundary. In the business world, the gate is sometimes called a “service level agreement (SLA).”
6. Empathy reduces conflict, aggression, and rage. Getting a good listening calms, soothes, and de-escalates. Getting a good listening de-escalates, period. When a person does not get the dignity, respect, or empathy to which he feels he is entitled, then he becomes angry. Lack of empathy and dignity violations expand anger and rage.
In particular, overcoming resistance to empathy, expanding empathy, is on the critical path to eliminating or at least reducing organizational conflicts and dysfunctional behaviors. When staff, executives, stake-holders, and so on, expand their empathy for one another and for customers, they are able to deescalate confrontations and negativity; they avoid provocative and devaluing language; and they are able to head off dignity violations, all of which reduce the conflicts that literally suck the life out of organizations.
When employees appreciate the possibilities of empathy, they even try to replace office politics with professional behavior. Staff get more done because they can concentrate on doing their jobs, working smarter, and serving customers and coworkers rather than struggling with departmental politics.
In addition, expanding empathy—overcoming resistance to empathy—is on the critical path to building teams. Empathy is the foundation of community, and the team is nothing if not a community. In empathy, people practice giving acknowledgment and recognition for their contribution to the success of the team and the organization. Being inclusive does not always come naturally or easily to us humans, territorial creatures that we are. We oscillate between closeness and distance like a pendulum.
5. Empathy is a method of data gathering – sampling – about the experiences of the other person. Hold this point. Simply stated, empathic receptivity is a technique of data collection about the experiences of other people. This is not mental telepathy. Human beings are receptive to one another, open to one another experientially, but with some conditions and qualifications. You have to listen to the other person and talk with him or her. You have to interact with the person. The one individual gets a sample of the experience of the other person. The one individual gets a trace of the other individual’s experience (like in data sampling) without merging with the other.
Through its four phases, empathy is a method of gathering data about the experience of the person as the other person experiences his or her experience. This data (starting with vicarious experience) is processed further by empathic understanding of possibilities and empathic interpretation of perspectives in order to give back to the other person his or her own experience by means of empathic responsiveness in language or gesture in such a way that the other person recognizes the experience as the person’s own.
4. Empathy is distinct from compassion or even rational compassion. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, maybe you are being too compassionate. I hasten to add this does not mean be hard-hearted, cold, mean-spirited, or indifferent. It means in the face of overwhelming suffering, tune down one’s empathic receptivity in order not to be emotionally neutralized. Tune up one’s cognitive empathy in order to understand what is going on and what are the options for making a positive difference in the face of the challenge at hand.
Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable to burnout and “compassion fatigue.” As noted, the risk of compassion fatigue is a clue that empathy is distinct from compassion, and if one is suffering from compassion fatigue, then one’s would-be practice of empathy is off the rails, in breakdown. Maybe one is being too compassionate instead of practicing empathy. In empathy, the listener gets a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or problem, including their suffering, so the listener suffers vicariously, but without being flooded and overwhelmed by the other’s experience.
The world needs \ more compassion and expanded empathy; but in managing compassion fatigue one may usefully turn down one’s compassion and turn up one’s empathy. The power of well-practiced empathy is that it enables one to sample the experience of the other, including their suffering (which is the problematic experience), without being inundated by it. Instead of diving in head first, one puts one’s toe in the waters of the other person’s experiences. To extend the metaphor, one needs to get the entire ankle in the water to gauge its temperature accurately, but that is still a lot different than being up to one’s neck in it.
The bottom line? Empathy is distinct from compassion. Empathy is a method of data gathering about the experiences of the other person; compassion tells one what to do about it, based on one’s ethics and values.
3. Empathy lessons are available every moment of every day: They are available in every encounter with another person, every anticipated encounter, and every encounter that has just occurred. Whether struggling to survive and attempting just to get through the day or flourishing, consider the other person as one’s empathy trainer.
The other person trains one in empathy by being uncommunicative, difficult, shut down, fearful, angry, enraged, outraged (lots of rage), sad, high spirited, too withholding, too generous, disequilibrated, perfectly centered, stuck up, arrogant, passive aggressive, aggressively helpless, annoyingly right, “obviously” wrong, or otherwise struggling with something that is hard to express. Sometimes the message is loud and clear. Thus, the baby trains the parent in empathy with loud exclamations; the customer sometimes does exactly the same thing to the businessperson; the patient, the doctor; the consultant, the client, and so on. The empathy lesson is to listen with renewed receptivity, understanding, and responsiveness to your kids, customers, clients, neighbors, and fellow human beings.
Every human encounter is a potential empathy lesson in picking up on the affect of the other person; in processing what is possible for the other person in spite of the stuckness or difficulty; in taking a walk in the other’s shoes when one really is without a clue as to what is going on; in taking what one has gotten by way of a vicarious experience and giving it back to the other person in a way that the other person recognizes it as his own.
The baby, the student, the patient, the customer, the neighbor, are the ones who bring empathy into existence for the parent, the teacher, the business person, in turn. The former provide an opening, a “set up,” a clearing, for the possibility of empathy on the part of the latter.
If we needed to multiple the number of empathy lessons available in every moment, then we would make these tips into equations: cynicism down, empathy up; shame down, empathy up; egocentrism down, empathy up; opinions and meaning making down, empathy up; narcissism down, empathy up; stress down, empathy up, and so on.
One can also reverse these empathy lessons: cynicism up, empathy down, and so on. In addition, numerous things are positively correlated with empathy: Acknowledgment up, empathy up; humor up, empathy up; self-esteem up, empathy up; random acts of kindness up, empathy up; a gracious and generous listening up, empathy up.
If you work in an environment laced with cynicism, the opportunities for empathy are constantly present, albeit in a privative mode. Get in touch with your empathy, which is powerful in such a context, and express a positive possibility. Your life, your job, your relations, will never be the same.
2. Empathy expands its claim to be a key leadership competency. Empathic leadership is never more visible than when it is lacking. Empathic leaders provide governance from contribution, commitment, and communication, not fear, chaos, or bullying. Empathic leaders follow the money, but do not follow it off a cliff. Empathic leaders make integrity the foundation of workability. They respect boundaries, speak and act with integrity, and honor their word. Here “integrity” means “workability,” not moral judgments. So, for example, a square bicycle wheel lacks integrity. It does not work. Empathic leaders find the best person for the job, get the person’s input on what it’s gonna take, create a set up for success, let the person do the job, and follow up periodically.
1. Natural empaths get expanded empathy. Paradoxically, natural empaths suffer from a lack of empathy. Natural empaths are so sensitive to the pain and suffering of the world that they must isolate themselves, cutting themselves off from the emotional life sustaining recognition and support that people require to flourish and be fully human.
The Natural Empath falls into a double bind, and her suffering seems inevitable. She is swamped by too much openness to the suffering of the other person or overcome by guilt at not living up to her own standards of fellow-feeling and ethics.
But the suffering is not inevitable. Such statements imply that empathy cannot be regulated through training, albeit a training that goes in the opposite direction (from too much empathy in the moment to less empathy) than that required by the majority of people, who are out of touch with their feelings and need to “up regulate” their empathy.
The empathy lesson for the Natural Empath is to “tune down” her empathic receptivity and “tune up” her empathic understanding and interpretation, while being more flexible about her ethical standards. Here “flexible” does not mean be unethical, but rather allow for the possibility that one needs to work on the balance between one’s own well-being and that of others in helping others.
Now please do not jump to conclusions. That does not mean the Natural Empath should become hard-hearted or unkind. That would definitely not expand empathy. In order to overcome the breakdown of empathic receptivity, what does one actually do in order to expand or contract one’s empathic receptivity?
The empathy lesson for such individuals? Practice methods of “down regulating” one’s empathy. For example, focus on mentalizing, top down empathy, placing oneself in the other person’s shoes, rather than imaginatively evoking the vicarious emotions of the other person’s experiences. Perspective-taking exercises—imaginatively putting oneself in the other’s point of view—expand the participant’s empathy during training sessions. Perspective taking incidentally promotes helping, “pro social” behaviors when it indirectly activates pro-social emotions such as compassion.
Over-intellectualizing (often considered a defense mechanism) is also a proven method of inhibiting empathic receptivity. Compartmentalization, rationalization, and displacement are all methods of putting distance between oneself and another’s feelings. Though usually considered defenses against feelings, in the case of the Natural Empath, such defenses are just what are needed to get through a tough spot of over-stimulation or emotional flooding in the face of the difficult experiences of other persons.
Ours is a world in which pain and suffering are abundant. This does not make the would-be empath cold-hearted or the object of moral condemnation. Indeed such people might be more willing to engage in helping behaviors such as volunteering or donating money based on cognitive appreciation of the other person’s predicament rather than the experience of vicarious suffering. It means that the Natural Empath should practice taking distance from his own feeling in such a way that he gets a sample or trace of the other person’s feeling without being overwhelmed.
Expressed positively, if inhibition (or distance) were a medicine, the Natural Empath may usefully increase the dosage. Take more of it. But this is at best an imperfect analogy. Remember, inhibition is what enables the average person to be effective in a world that the person subsequently experiences as boring and dull precisely because inhibition is doing its job of down regulating the tidal wave of stimulations that potentially wash over the person; and likewise the Natural Empath, hypothetically lacking such a filter, needs to down-regulate her empathy through self-distraction and abstraction to sustain emotional equilibrium rather than over-stimulation.
This is surely a mixed blessing. The Natural Empath is a special case, and he may actually increase his good deeds in a particular situation by contracting his empathic receptivity, one particular part of empathy. If one can expand one’s empathy, one can also contract it.
The way out of this apparent impasse is to consider that the Natural Empath does indeed get empathic receptivity right in empathic openness to the other’s distress, but then the person’s empathy misfires. Whether the misfiring in question is over-identification, resulting in empathic distress, depends on the description and redescription. Standing on the sidelines and saying “Try harder!” is easy to do. Where is the training the person needs when they need it?
Instead of complaining about being an overly sensitive, Natural Empath (however accurate that may be) do the work of practicing empathy by “down regulating” one’s empathic receptivity in a given situation, transforming empathic distress into a vicarious experience. Do the work of “up regulating” empathic interpretation whereby one imaginatively puts oneself in the other person’s position and considers the experiences thereby inspired vicariously, reducing the “load” on the emotions. This is different than intellectualizing, compartmentalizing, or distinguishing in thought, but perhaps not different by much. The differences are nuanced, but of the essence.
The recommendation regarding empathy training? Most people need to expand their empathy; some people—Natural Empaths—need to contract (or inhibit) their empathy. Empathy regulation—learning to expand and contract empathy—is the imperative in either case.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project