Empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time for it. Empathy is never needed more than when it seems the budget does not allow for it. Empathy is never needed more than when the cynicism and resignation about life, whether in the family or the corporate jungle, are so thick you can’t catch your breath.
Being ready for empathy is like being ready to be born. No one is ready to be born. You just get born. Ready or not, the individual is thrown into the world. No one asked you if you wanted a life. You just got one.
Empathy enables you to have a human existence filled with satisfying, engaging, dynamic, fulfilling relationships instead of living in an empty, depopulated emotional desert.
There is enough empathy to go around. The key to the empathy readiness assessment is realizing enough empathy is available for everyone. Empathy is not a zero sum game. There do not have to be losers versus winners. If you can get your head around the idea that there is enough empathy available in the world—crazy as that idea may seem at first—then you are ready to engage with expanding empathy in your life and the community.
Seems impossible? Let us take a step back. You know how we can feed everyone on the planet, so that there should be no need for people to get sick and die of starvation? Thanks to the “Green Revolution,” high tech seeds, and the economies of scale of agri-business, enough food exists to feed everyone. Yet people are starving. People are starving in the Middle East, Africa, and in parts of the USA. People are starving because of politics in the pejorative sense, breakdowns in social justice, violence, aggression, bullying, cynicism, bias, prejudice, fragmentation of communities, and human badness. There is enough food to feed everyone, but it is badly distributed.
Likewise, with empathy. Enough empathy is available to go around; but it is not evenly distributed. People are living and working in empathy deserts.
Organizational politics in the pejorative sense of the words, attempts to control and dominate, egocentrism and narcissism, out-and-out aggression and greed, stress and burnout, all result in empathy deserts. Empathy gets hoarded, creating empathy deserts locally, even amid an abundant ability to practice empathy.
Create a clearing for success in working on expanding your empathy, contributing to growing empathy in yourself, other individuals, and the community. Perform a readiness assessment for empathy training
Therefore, this guide to bringing forth a rigorous and critical empathy training does not call for “more” empathy, but rather for “expanded” empathy. The difference is subtle. Commenting “We need more empathy here!” implies the individual is unempathic—are you saying I lack empathy!?—and that is an insult, a dignity violation, a narcissistic injury, creating even more conflict and shrinking empathy.
The way we put our words together makes a profound difference. Experience indicates the call for “more empathy” results in a further breakdown of empathy. In contrast, calling for “expanded empathy” makes a difference in getting unstuck from difficult, sticky situations, reestablishing relatedness, de-escalating conflict, interrupting anger or soothing rage, shifting out of upset, and overcoming the challenges of relating in a world that can from time-to-time be decidedly unempathic.
In extreme cases, a person may in fact lack empathy in a medical or legal sense—the serial killer, the psychopath, and persons suffering from mental illnesses, or, more sympathetically, one of the disorders of empathy such as an autism spectrum disorder. However, such persons are exceptions or in an exceptional situation.
In most cases, individuals have a significant empathic ability with which the individual is out of touch. The person lacks self-knowledge, has a blind spot, and does not know himself to be empathic. The person’s empathy is implicit and is waiting to be expanded. Therefore, a rigorous and critical guide calls out for expanded empathy—to leverage the kernel of empathy that already exists in the person’s humanity and develop it, if not into a mountain, at least into a heaping hill of empathy.
One reason that empathy training programs have not worked or have produced disappointing results is that they train the participants in compassion, being nice, conflict resolution, baby and child care, and a number of worthy and admirable skills. This is all well and good, and the use of compassionate methods is making the world a better place in all these situations. So keep it up. There is nothing wrong with reducing conflict, being nice, agreeable, and so on: do not be “unnice.” But paradoxically something is missing—practicing a rigorous and critical empathy.
Now I do not wish to give anyone a bad name, especially anyone who is committed to empathy, compassion, conflict resolution, or making a difference in overcoming human pain and suffering. On the contrary, I acknowledge and honor one and all. The battle against suffering is joined; we are all on the same side; and we want to deploy our resources wisely.
As soon as one announces a commitment (for example): “I am going to expand empathy in my life,” then all the reasons that it is utterly impossible to do so show up. “What are you thinkin’ fella?” Not enough time. Not enough money. Resistance to empathy does not mean that one fails the readiness assessment to expand one’s empathy. It means that one is a human being.
People have blind spots about empathy. People have blind spots, period. Part of the readiness assessment? Those who take the implicit bias test discover they have biases—often several (see Teaching Tolerance 2020). When it comes to doing the work required actually to listen and respond empathically to others, people make exceptions for themselves—and their biases and inauthenticities. No exceptions!
The one question readiness assessment for empathy is: “Am I ready to do what it takes to clean up my inauthenticities in my practice of empathy?” (Key term: clean up.) Even if you are not completely sure what this means, being willing to agree to the statement is enough to get started.
When it comes to a readiness assessment, the “willingness” is easy. Speaking personally, even lazy people can get their heads around willingness; and once a person puts his foot out onto the slippery slope of willingness, well, it is downhill all way. Sliding downhill may have its occasional bumps, and you have to apply the brake at times; but it is a lot easier than climbing up the hill.
Look it, dude. I would be kidding you if I said no effort is required. Effort is required to expand your empathy. It is going to take something—and, at times, something extra by way of effort. Mostly it requires taking an honest look at oneself. That is not trivial. It may be confronting. But if you are getting vicariously traumatized trying to be empathic, then you are doing it wrong. Throttle back. Take a break.
Being willing to clean up one’s authenticities is precisely the empathy lesson. The “gotcha” is that the inauthenticities in one’s life are not limited just to empathy. However, empathy leads the way. The readiness for a rigorous and critical empathy requires, well, rigor and a willingness to be self-critical. The readiness for empathy requires doing the work required to create a clearing for empathic success, a clearing of integrity and authenticity.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project