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Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 2): Individual Provider and Receiver (of Empathy)

Overcoming Individual resistance to empathy (provider)

Empathy is trending. As we engage with provider empathy, the pendulum has swung far enough for a backlash against empathy to be emerging. 

Empathy with negative emotions and suffering is difficult. From a purely selfish perspective, empathic data gathering about the negative experiences endured and survived by other persons can be, well, negative. Negative experiences such as loss, hostility, intense rage, sexual danger, sadness, sleep deprivation, fear, and so on, are not welcome by anyone even as a less intense vicarious experiences. One fears getting the full-blown experience, not merely vicariously experiencing a sample or trace. The would-be empathizer is at risk of being overwhelmed, inundated, or flooded by emotional upset. The person’s empathy is on the slippery slope of empathic distress; and the empathy is at risk of breakdown. 

The language is telling. If one is hit by a tidal wave, then one is going to be “under water.” Kick your feet, make swimming motions with the arms, and rise to the surface to try to catch your breath. While an empathic response is easier said than done, expressing the suffering of the survivor in a simple and factually accurate statement can open the way to containing the suffering and getting unstuck. Dial down empathic receptivity and dial up empathic interpretation and understanding. 

People committed to providing empathy to other people resist their own commitment to empathy for several reasons. As soon as a person makes a commitment—in this case, a commitment to practice empathy—then all the reasons why the commitment is a bad idea, unworkable, unreasonable, or just plain absurd, show up. There is no time. It is too expensive. No one is interested. What seemed like a good idea yesterday, now seems a lot more challenging and like a lot more work. Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no possibility of it. 

The would-be empathizer is vulnerable to a vicarious experience of the other person’s suffering. Indeed if one’s empathic data filter is not granular enough, one is at risk of being inundated by emotional contagion. This does not mean that the provider of empathy has to be a masochist, stuck on suffering. However, it does mean being vulnerable to a sample of the suffering. It does mean opening oneself up to a sample of the other person’s upsetting experience. It does mean being receptive to that which the other finds so upsetting, but doing so in a regulated and limited way. Hence, the need for training. 

The training consists in interrupting and accepting one’s own feelings and letting them be. Practice is required in order to increase one’s tolerance and learn to be with uncomfortable feelings. 

One key to forming a humane relationship with anyone who is upset: Vicariously getting a taste of the upset, experiencing vicariously the other’s fear or anger. Acknowledge the experience as valid. Accept the experience, not as good or fair, but as what one has indeed experienced. 

One celebrity academic claims that in empathy the better part of emotion is reducible to emotional contagion. What the world needs to practice is not empathy, but rational compassion. As if one had to choose between the two! The world needs expanded empathy and more compassion of all kinds.[i]

A vicarious experience is essential data as to what the other person is experiencing; but if one is distressed to the point of upset by the other’s upset, then one is not going to be able to make a difference. Paradoxically one is not going to be able to experience one’s experience due to being distracted by one’s own upset. One’s empathy has misfired, gone off the rails, failed. 

Empathy is in breakdown. One has to regroup. Take a time out. Acknowledge that one is human. One does not always get it right, but that does not mean that one is less committed to empathy or helping the other. It is worth repeating that the empathizer may expect to suffer, but not too much—just a little bit. 

The good news is that empathy, when properly implemented, serves as an antidote to burnout or “compassion fatigue.” Note the language here. Unregulated empathy supposedly results in “compassion fatigue.” However, this work has repeatedly distinguished empathy from compassion. 

Could it be that when one tries to be empathic and experiences compassion fatigue, then one is actually being compassionate instead of empathic? Consider the possibility. The language is a clue. Strictly speaking, one’s empathy is in breakdown. Instead of being empathic, one is being compassionate, and, in this case, the result is compassion fatigue without the quotation marks. It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue,” which is a nuance rarely noted by the advocates of “rational compassion.” 

No one is saying, do not be compassionate. Compassion has its time and place—as does empathy. We may usefully work to expand both; but we are saying do not confuse the two. 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. 

Most providers of empathy find that with a modest amount of training, they can adjust their empathic receptivity up or down to maintain their own emotional equilibrium. In the face of a series of sequential samples of suffering, the empathic person is able to maintain his emotional equilibrium thanks to a properly adjusted empathic receptivity. No one is saying that the other’s suffering or pain should be minimized in any way or invalidated. One is saying that, with practice, regulating empathy becomes a best practice. 

However, the good news is sometimes also the less good news. 

The other person’s suffering reminds one of one’s own suffering. 

The other person’s anger reminds one of one’s own anger. 

The other’s failures evoke one’s own setbacks. 

The other’s self-defeating behavior is plainly evident to any third party, but one’s own self-defeating behavior seems to continue with regularity in tripping up oneself. 

Rarely does a person say, “I want to be empathic in order to confront my own personal demons.” Rarely does one say it, but that is what is needed. That is the work of expanding one’s empathy. As in the fairy tale, one must spend three nights in the haunted castle, fighting the ghosts of one’s past and confronting the illusive specter of one’s blind spots. 

Anxiety, depression, fragmentation, and the dehumanization dwelling in the dark side of human nature loom large before discovering the buried treasure of one’s own emotional resources in the face of upsets.

The thinking and practices that created empathy breakdowns are insufficient to overcome them. The thinking and practices that created resistances to empathy are insufficient to transform them. To get one’s power back in the face of resistance to empathy, something extra is required. 

Expanding one’s empathy in the face of one’s own resistance to empathy requires something extra. Expanding empathy requires expanding authenticity, so the person who would practice empathy has to confront and clean up his own emotional contagion, conformity, projection, egocentrism, devaluing judgments and opinions, and the tendency of communications to get lost in translation. This clean up requires acting to repair disruptions in relatedness and repairing misunderstandings and miscommunications with other people by acknowledging one’s own contribution to the breakdown. It requires picking up the phone or requesting a meeting. It requires showing up, engaging, and acknowledging how one acted to cause the upset or breakdown. 

Instead of emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and mistranslation, one enters the empathic cycle, engaging with openness towards the other person in receptivity, understanding of possibilities, taking ownership of one’s meaning making so that the other person is left free to be self-expressed, and responding in such a way that the other person is left whole and complete. 

This means accepting the consequences of one’s deeds and mis-deeds. That is the first step—and every step—in recovering one’s power in relation to empathy. One might not get what one wants. However, what one is going to get is unstuck—and the freedom to be empathic in relationships going forward. 

Overcoming individual resistance to empathy (recipient)

Everyone wants to get empathy, don’t they? Speaking of a recipient’s resistance to empathy sounds like resisting rainbows and colored balloons. What’s not to like? Empathy is what everyone really wants, isn’t it? Well, not always. Resistance to empathy—that it exists—is the basic empathy lesson of this chapter. 

Emotional closeness leaves a person vulnerable to disappointment. The would-be recipient of empathy is ambivalent and vulnerable about being intimate with the other person, inhibiting the recipient’s empathic relatedness. The result is resistance to empathy. 

People want approval from other people. People want approval for their opinions and behavior. People want agreement. Life is definitely easier, at least in the short run, if one is surrounded by people who agree with one rather than disagree. 

People especially want agreement when they have something to be disagreeable about. They want agreement when they have a complaint. However, empathy does not lead off with approval and agreement. 

Empathy leads off by being quiet and listening. In the face of chronic complaints and self-defeating behavior, being empathic often takes an open and inquiring stance that the other person may usefully take a look at any responsibility or potential blind spots he may be holding onto as the source of the complaint. It seems like “mission impossible,” since the blind spot is precisely that which, by definition, one does not know and that to which one can get access only through sustained self-inquiry. Doing the hard work of undertaking an inquiry into one’s own issues is, well, hard work. That results in resistance to empathy. 

Resistant or not, people want to be understood. People want to be gotten for who they authentically are. People want other people to know how they have struggled to succeed and overcome adversity. 

Yet, in hoping to be understood for who they really are, people are asking, not so much for agreement as for empathy. 

People assert that they want to be understood; yet they do not want to be understood too well. 

People do not want to take too close a look at how they have contributed to their own struggle and effort. People do not want to face directly how they have contributed in self-defeating ways to their own frustration and stuckness about which they so loudly complain. 

People want the recognition of their humanity that comes with empathy; but not the unmasking of their own blind spots, which requires getting out of their comfort zone. 

Let’s face it. People can be difficult. People are disagreeable. People are contrary. People are ornery. People are rude and discourteous. People push and shove. People often forget to honor their agreements. People lie. People are overly aggressive. People are overly sexed. People are under-sexed. People smell bad. Is it any wonder that people do not want to get close to other people? Is it any surprise that people develop resistance to being empathic towards other people? 

This is a case of you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. People, that is. Yet there is no such thing as a person in isolation. A person by himself is not a survivable entity. That is true of newborn babies. That is true of children of tender age, who require years of guidance and education. Likewise, that is true of adults, though in more nuanced ways. 

The “I” is a part of the “we,” and the “we” a part of the “I”

Early prehistoric humans needed a companion to tend the campfire and stand guard against predators (or hostile neighbors) while the other(s) rested. The basic male and female pair was an inseparable requirement for procreative success. 

Propagating the species to build a community against the ravages of infant mortality was a priority requiring skills to cooperate with one another socially. For most of recorded history (and before) children were the equivalent of a pension plan for aging parents; and in many parts of the world today that continues to be the case. 

Domination and control of individuals in community based on physical strength and violence coexisted alongside (and contended against) forms of cooperation, leadership, and community-building based on the skillful use of language and symbols to exercise power based on motivation, persuasion, inspiration, inclusion, and enlightened self-interest. 

The point is not to tell a “just so” story about the origins of civilization, but rather to acknowledge that, not only is the individual a part of the community, the community is also a part of the individual. This bears repeating. The “I” does not only belong to the “we”; but the “we” is a part of the “I.” We carry within ourselves a readiness for community, a readiness for relatedness, a sense of inclusion in community; and if there is no one else to talk to, we talk to ourselves. 

The empathy lesson? Empathy is the foundation of relatedness, and resistance to empathy is resistance to relatedness. People are born into “relatedness.” Empathy is about participation with others. Empathy is about relatedness with other people and who these others authentically are in their strengths and weaknesses, in their possibilities and limitations. Even when a person is a hermit, all alone, he is alone in such a way that his aloneness depends on the basic condition of his being a creature designed for relatedness. Being unrelated is a privative form of relatedness; and being alone is a deficient form of relatedness. Paradoxically, nonrelatedness becomes a way of relating for some. 

Given that resistance to empathy on the part of the would-be recipient of empathy is pervasive, what is the recommendation? Ask yourself: What is coming between myself and the other person who is offering empathy? Perhaps fear of being misunderstood is a factor. Fear of being let down is another factor. Fear of being vulnerable gets in the way. Fear of disappointment is a consideration. 

What do all these factors have in common? Fear. Fear is front and center. However, there is something else further back behind the fear. Less obvious but highly significant. What would a person have to give up in order to be receptive to the gracious and generous listening being offered? Behind the fear is attachment—attachment to suffering.

Suffering is sticky

For people who are survivors, whether of the college of hard knocks or significant trauma, allowing themselves to experience another’s empathy takes something extra. Many people who fall short of a clinical label of “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) have an area in their lives in which they are engaged with their suffering in an intimate way. You know the saying: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer”? So it is also with suffering. In order to survive suffering, many people have decided to keep it close to them. They are attached to it. Overly attached? One thing is for sure. Suffering is sticky.[ii] Letting go of the suffering through the soothing experience of empathy seems like a risky proposition to people who feel fragile and vulnerable.

Consider PTSD. (We define our terms.) In an attempt to master the consequences of the life threatening experience of trauma, the organism (the human mind/body) keeps the fear, anxiety, and pain split off from being experienced as one’s own. Yes, one was present when the assault happened, the violence was perpetrated, or the train wreck occurred. 

Yet in another sense, one was not present. One was not there, at least not as a conscious being. In being overwhelmed in the moment, one immediately took oneself out of the experience as an immediate reaction and survival mechanism. The traumatic experience remains unintegrated with one’s other life experiences, spinning in a tight circle of repetition. 

The circle of repetition is split off from the person’s awareness and everyday life, remaining isolated—“sequestered” is the technical term for it.[iii] Suffering lives. The pain is real. Suffering itself becomes a kind of “comfort zone,” but only in the limited sense that it is isolated and separated from the awareness of the person trying to live his life. 

This in no way diminishes the struggle or suffering of the survivor. Yet letting go of the suffering through the soothing balm of empathy shows up like a risky encounter with the unknown. For most people, the unknown itself is fear inspiring. The unknown is as fear inspiring as the suffering itself. 

One keeps coming back to the suffering in the hope that it might be magically shifted. One keeps coming back to it like an exposed nerve in a toothache. Yes, it still hurts—ouch! The suffering starts to dominate one’s whole life, and one builds one’s life around the suffering, trying to manage and contain the uncontainable. One says, “I know my own dear little suffering up close, and it is a comfort to me in its own way—it gives me all these secondary gains—even though the impact and cost is staggering in the long term—yet I cannot let it go.” 

We cycle back to empathy and its many dimensions in the context of suffering as an uncomfortable comfort zone. 

How to be empathically responsive to the struggling individual and his “dear little suffering” requires an empathic listening of remarkable finesse and timeliness. 

Empathy can help people get out of their comfort zone, in this case a place of suffering, in a safe and liberating way. When empathy gets an opening, empathy shrinks the trauma the way interferon is supposed to shrink tumors. Empathy sooths the accompanying suffering and reduces the stress. 

The survivor is able to let go of the attachment to suffering, and engage with new possibilities. No guarantee exists that the outcome of the new possibilities will be favorable; many risks await; but the individual is no longer stuck. 

In summary, we have engaged with resistance to empathy from three perspectives. We have explored overcoming resistance to empathy in the organization, in the individual providing empathy, and in the individual receiving empathy. In each case the empathy training consists in driving out obstacles to empathy, reducing or eliminating the resistance, so empathy can spontaneously grow and develop. 

The organization drives out empathy by enforcing conformity to an extensive and contradictory set of rules, whose complexity is such that at any give time, the individual is technically (though unwittingly) in violation of one of them.

Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s career; and humor is closely related to empathy; so humor becomes a powerful way of regulating empathy, expanding and contracting empathy in such challenging organizational contexts. Humor is a powerful tool against the arrogance of authoritarian domination. Both empathy and humor require crossing the boundary between self and other with integrity and respect, but humor offers additional opportunities for questioning the status quo, speaking truth to power, and creating the stress, suddenly relaxed by laughter, caused by expressing what’s so.

Empathy has a key role to play in organizations in reducing conflict, overcoming “stuckness,” eliminating self-defeating behavior, building teams, fostering innovation, developing leadership, and enhancing productivity. The empathy lesson is to use humor (and empathy) to undercut resistance to empathy in the organization. The lesson is that empathy is a source of creating possibilities, overcoming conformity through innovation, and leading from a future of possibilities. 

Resistance to empathy on the part of those who provide empathy shows up as “compassion fatigue” and burnout. The word is a clue: compassion, not empathy, causes “compassion fatigue.” So much compassion, so little empathy. I hasten to repeat that the world needs both more compassion and more empathy. Peer group dynamics, collegial support, and self-care are required to recharge the emotional resources of those routinely providing empathy to others. 

Regular self-care, including exercise, nutrition, quality time with family/friends, is on the critical path to survival and flourishing, managing the risk of experiencing empathic distress. 

This makes the case for self-care and self-monitoring on the part of professionals of all kinds and first responders in health care, education, sales, leadership, public safety, customer service, and so on, whose empathy is a significant part of their role. Professionals take breaks and are on top of their empathy game; amateurs try to be empathic all the time (whatever that would mean), experience empathic distress, make it mean they lack empathy, and quit. Those who do not take care of themselves, then blaming empathy when they get burned out, are committing a kind of malpractice of empathic engagement (in the literal, not pejorative sense of the word). Like a helicopter, empathy is powerful and complex, so it requires regularly scheduled maintenance lest something go wrong at an inconvenient time.

For those individuals who want empathy or think that they want empathy, but then change their minds, resistance to empathy confronts readiness for empathy. Some people simply would rather not be understood. For them, being understood has resulted in bad outcomes. They have been manipulated, used, even abused. 

In such cases, the would-be empathizer has to “dial down” empathic receptivity, in which the communication of affect looms large, and “tune up” empathic interpretation, in which one cognitively processes what it might be like to take the other’s point of view. Once a person feels safe, the person will be willing to risk exposing and exploring the vulnerabilities that got the person stuck in the first place and need working through to get the person moving again into a flourishing future of possibilities. 

In conclusion, empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? A lot. People can be difficult—very difficult—why should empathizing with them be easy? Yet most of the things that are cited as reasons for criticizing and dismissing empathy—emotional contagion, projection, misinterpretation, gossip, messages lost in translation and devaluing language—are actually breakdowns of empathy. With practice and training, one’s empathy expands to shift breakdowns in empathy to breakthroughs in understanding, possibilities of flourishing, enhanced humanity, relatedness, and building community.


[i] Empathy is now a major publishing event. There is a wave of books on empathy—popular, scientific, political, and scholarly. For example, Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy explores empathy between humans and higher animals; J.D. Trout’s The Empathy Gap considers empathy and social justice from the perspective of Ignatian Humanism; Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, 800 pages long in hardcover (don’t drop it on your foot!) channels Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of a global consciousness, now including the politics of empathy; Jean Decety’s Social Neuroscience establishes correlations between sensations, affects, and emotions using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI) as a kind of x-ray for the soul, exploring the relation between empathy and psychopathy (with his colleague Kent Kiehl); Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy considers the role of empathy in cruelty and disorders of empathy such as psychopathy and autism. Thomas Farrow’s (ed.) Empathy in Mental Illness drills down scientifically on the disorders of empathy in all their profound differences. See also: Susan Lanzoni, Empathy: A History (Yale 2018); any collectioin on social neuroscience by Jean Decety; William R.Miller, Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding (WIPF and Stock, 2018); Cris Beam, I feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy (Houghton Mifflin, 2018); Jodi Halpern, From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice, (Oxford, 2001); David Howe, Empathy: What It Is and Why It Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Leslie Jamisom, The Empathy Exams (Essays) (Graywolf, 2014); Thomas Kohut, Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past (Routledge 2021).

[ii] I discuss this proposition in detail in Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge (Taylor and Francis): 53, 55, 117, 190.

[iii] Bessel van der Kolk. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books.

Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 1: Organizational Resistance to Empathy)

You don’t need an expert to practice empathy

Every parent, teacher, doctor, social worker, sales person, person with customers, first responder, consultant, neighbor, or taxi driver already knows a lot about empathy. They would not be successful, much less survive, if they did not practice empathy. You may need a license to be a barber and cut hair. However, outside totalitarian state, no one can require that you have a license to do what comes spontaneously to the vast majority of human beings—be empathic. However, an expert can be helpful in clarifying distinctions, providing tips and techniques, and modeling the empathy you want to get or apply and expand.

Parents are naturally empathic towards their children; teachers, towards their students; medical doctors, towards their patients; business people, towards their customers, consultants towards their clients, and so on. Even if a person is clumsy and does not get empathy quite right, people can’t stop doing it. Yes, that’s right—people can’t stop being empathic; but then fear stops them—fear of experiencing vicariously another person’s pain, struggle, conflict, or suffering—and a breakdown occurs in their empathy. There must be something wrong here! Blame starts flying around. They blame themselves. They blame the other person. They blame empathy.

Even if doctors are trained to “tune down” their spontaneous empathy until it becomes “detached concern”—and good reasons exist for doing that at times—empathy naturally breaks through, and they often relate authentically to their patients as one human being to another in spite of themselves.[i]

The really useful thing is that in learning to contract one’s empathy, one is also learning expand it, because one is learning to regulate and manage empathy. Contracting one’s empathy also means being able to expand it. “Dialing down” empathy also means being able to “dial up” empathy. 

“Dialing down” empathy does not mean “stop listening,” “be unkind,” “blame,” “make wrong,” “reject,” “be hostile,” “use devaluing speech,” or “feign thoughtlessness.” Such a response would be absurd. 

There is a sense in which a feeling may be socially appropriate or inappropriate—for example to laugh at a funeral when nothing is funny—feelings are valid in themselves in that they always are what they are. 

A feeling may be an inarticulate judgment—fear being the judgment that one should run from danger—especially if a mountain lion is coming around the bend. The fear is an absolute given in the moment. 

One may wish that one felt differently than one does in fact feel in the moment; but that one feels a certain way is an absolute given. 

The best way to turn fear into an out-an-out panic attack is to say to oneself: “This (fear) should not be!” But of course it is, so that means what? One has lost control. Panic! 

The recommendation? Accepting the feelings as what’s so does not make an unpleasant feeling any easier to bear, but it takes away its power, drains the upset out of it, and gives one space to be in equilibrium with oneself again. Thus, radical acceptance of the feeling is an effective method of “dialing down” one’s empathy.

Most people are naturally empathic, but they lack practice. They set about practicing empathy, but are clumsy. Or they had a bad experience in relation to their own empathy or someone else’s (lack of) empathy. They develop a “flinch reflex” when it comes to practicing empathy. For such individuals, resistance to empathy replaces their spontaneous empathy. Most people use empathy every day, and do not need an expert to tell them what it is. Olympic athletes get a coach, but it is not because they are not good at what they do. They are good at what they do; and are striving to get to the next level of excellence. Few people claim to be really good at empathizing. Those persons who are practiced in empathy can be useful coaches in helping one to clarify definitions, engage the hard cases, and distinguish how to transform breakdowns of empathy into breakthroughs that make a difference. 

Using empathy—practicing empathy—sometimes means being used by empathy. Yes, empathy uses us. 

“Being used by empathy” means that the person has trained in being empathic, so that the person has a level of mastery that allows the person to be empathic (or not) without thinking too much about it. Empathy has become practiced, habitual, and automatic. 

There’s what we know we know about empathy. There’s what we know we do not know about empathy and hope to find out. Where did the word come from? What are mirror neurons anyway? How does one expand one’s empathy? 

Finally, there is what we do not even know we do not know about empathy. The third area is where this book and its training operates—what we do not even know we do not know: our blind spots about empathy; our vulnerability, shame, and cynicism in relating to others; and our resistance to empathy.

Empathy requires that one get “up close and personal” with other people. Other people can be notoriously difficult, irritable, dishonest, manipulative, apathetic, too pushy, or contrary. Other people resist being on the receiving end of empathy, because being understood makes them feel vulnerable.

If someone understands me, really understands me, then he can use what he understands about me to take advantage of me. Now an authentically empathic person would not do that, but the world is not known for being filled with authentically empathic people. 

Well-intentioned persons sometimes simply misunderstand what empathy is and are resisting something else that they happen to call “empathy.” They mistake the breakdown of empathy in emotional contagion, conformity, projection, distortion, mind reading, or lack of responsiveness, for empathy proper, and throw out the baby with the proverbial bath water. The empathy lesson in confronting resistance to empathy is direct: remove the resistance to empathy, and empathy comes forth, develops, and blossoms. Empathy expands. 

Overcome resistance to empathy: empathy expands

Another person’s blind spots are easy to see, but one struggles to catch a glimpse of one’s own. Thus, one of my own blind spots about empathy comes into view, albeit in my peripheral vision. When I do not get my way, I have the thought that the other person (or the world) is unempathic. This is of course absurd and self-serving, though, heaven knows, empathy is unevenly distributed in the world. The empathy lesson? Wherever there is empathy, can narcissism be far away? (No.) Thus, I clean up the thought—give it up, distinguish it as not helpful, let it go. But no matter how may times I give it up, the next time I am frustrated, it seems like there is that thought again, coming into view like the grin on the Cheshire cat. Only now it becomes an inside joke, and a challenge to earn my empathic wings everyday.

This lesson is easy to express, hard to do. The devil is in the details. One has to descend into the hell of one’s empathy breakdowns in order to emerge from the refiner’s fire of self-inquiry with renewed commitment to empathy, relatedness, and community. This sounds too hard. No one said it would be easy.

How to start? One begins by introspecting. Acknowledging one’s own lack of integrity and inauthenticity in the matter of empathy. Like the labors of the mythical hero Hercules, there is a whole lot of shoveling of manure to be performed. 

Cleaning up broken interpersonal relationships is on the agenda. Repairing integrity outages and inauthenticities is in order. Empathy training includes the requirement to go out into the world of one’s relations with other persons and engage and practice. 

The very idea of resistance to empathy inspires resistance. The idea of resistance to empathy requires motivation. 

What could that even be? Resistance to empathy seems to make no sense. It sounds like resisting motherhood, puppies, or apple pie. 

The idea that some people would resist empathy is surprising. Very surprising. What’s not to like about empathy? A great deal it seems. Even within this way of talking, appearances can be deceptive. Puppies make a mess on the new carpet. Apple pie is delicious, but it makes one fat. Mothers are wonderful people. The human race owes its existence to those who are mothers both individually and as a community; but motherhood is a damn tough job, not withstanding its many rewards. Mothers require a lot of support. Volunteers? 

In general, receiving empathy is like getting a gift; providing empathy requires effort. Getting empathy is a benefit. Providing empathy requires listening to the other person, attending to one’s introspective reaction to the other person, managing the increase in tension, living with the uncertainty of being open to the other person, being vulnerable, and risking misunderstanding. This is why providing empathy inspires resistance. It requires work. 

On the other hand, receiving empathy from a committed listener has been compared to sinking back into a warm bath. It is relaxing. It reduces stress. It is restorative of one’s emotional equilibrium. However, even in a one-on-one conversation, receiving empathy sometimes feels like being publicly acknowledged and recognized at a banquet. It has its uncomfortable side. 

It is not always easy to be explicitly acknowledged and recognized for one’s contribution. One may feel ambivalent about being exposed and vulnerable. So even receiving empathy, though properly regarded as a benefit, has its conditions and qualifications; and some people are made painfully self-conscious by being acknowledged.

Whether one is giving empathy or receiving it, empathy has its dark side. If one is committed to giving empathy—being empathic—one is vulnerable to burnout, empathic distress, or “compassion fatigue.” If one is on the receiving end of empathic receptivity, though a restorative experience, one is still exposed in one’s potential weaknesses and limitations. One feels vulnerable to misunderstanding by the other person, to whom one has exposed oneself emotionally.

At a deeper level, resistance to empathy lives in our individual and collective blind spots about our dear self. Where there is empathy, can narcissism be far away? “Narcissism” is a way of relating to oneself. The mythical Narcissus was an attractive young man. He was so enamored of his own reflection in the mirror-like surface of the pond—this was before the invention of “selfies”—that he did not see the dangers of his surroundings. In different versions of the myth, Narcissus either fell into the water, drowning in his own image of himself, or he was consumed—metaphorically eaten—by the lion of his narcissistic desires, who also frequented the watering hole. 

The empathy lesson of the myth of Narcissus? Empathy requires de-emphasizing “the dear self.” Even for someone committed to giving empathy such a de-emphasis of self-love is not automatic. When the empathy being delivered includes recognition, people struggling with self-esteem issues—either too much or too little—find it challenging just to accept the acknowledgement. “Naw, it wasn’t nothing—just doin’ my job.” It is not easy to be acknowledged, and therein lies resistance to empathy, too. Though receiving empathy feels good, it is not easy to open up to another person and acknowledge one’s personal issues, sufferings, sources of shame, or struggles.

In every instance of resistance to empathy, the empathy lesson consists in identifying, engaging, reducing, managing, or eliminating, the resistance to empathy by interpreting the resistance; driving out cynicism, shame, guilt (and so on); saying what is missing the presence of which would make a difference (such as respect for boundaries or contribution); and being open to the possibility—of expanded empathy. 

When the resistance is reduced, empathy has space to expand, which it does so spontaneously as well as through providing explicit practices, tactics, strategies, and training.

The qualities that make organizations successful are not always the qualities that enhance their empathy. I am so bold as to assert this generalization applies whether the institution is a tax paying public one, listed on the stock exchange, or a nonprofit, community organization. Whether the corporate mission is to deliver value in manufacturing automobiles or to serve the community by collecting and distributing whole human blood to sick people, the ultimate truth is: no money, no mission.

Yet to say that the purpose of one’s business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is to keep on breathing. Well, okay. The two are closely related. Definitely, don’t stop breathing. But somehow “don’t stop breathing” is not very useful as life guidance; and, likewise, “make money” is not a useful business strategy.

The ongoing process of living—or doing business—should not be confused with the purpose, vision, strategy, and meaning of the activity in the direction of excellence, whether in business or the community.

In most successful organizations, expanding revenue is a result of a successful strategy—applications and implementations that deliver value—and satisfy the demands of the customers, employees, and stakeholders. The expanded revenue is the effect of getting the vision and implementation just right, not the cause of it.

Successful enterprises of all kinds have to handle navigating an intricate, complex network of rules assigned by government, law enforcement, taxing authorities, and non-governmental special interest groups. Business and nonprofit enterprises must contend with competing organizations that assert and authentically believe that they can provide the product or service at lower cost or higher quality. Within the enterprise itself, the organization must balance the personalities of the leaders, individual contributors (workers), and stake-holders, who make up the organization.

An inherent challenge exists in building organizations and crafting an administrative structure that actually functions; and then getting the administrative structure—the bureaucracy—to act in a responsive and balanced way to customers, employees, and stake-holders.

Economies of scale that require fitting people into functions that can be substituted for one another to increase efficiency rarely expand empathy, because empathy consists in recognizing differences in individual contributions.

Hear me say it, and not for the last time: the things that make us good at business, including the corporate transformation of American medicine and education, do not always expand our empathy. What to do about it? The battle is joined. The recommendation?

Let your customers, constituents, or stake-holders train you in empathy: Realize that if you do not respond empathically, the customers are just going to go quietly to the competitor that does. Empathy is good for business. If the customer has a complaint that he is having trouble expressing, then use one’s listening skills to get to the bottom of things.

If the customer expresses anger, know that empathy is one of the best methods, bar none, of deescalating conflict and soothing anger. “Gee, it really does sound like you have not been well treated. Let’s see what we can do to make things better” [or words to that effect].

Still, I do not know of a single organization that as of the date of publication of this book, when making decisions, serving customers, documenting complaints, closing sales, managing conflicts of interest, asks: “What would the empathic response be?”

To be sure, aspects of the empathic response are included in such common factors as “be respectful to customers,” “be helpful to clients,” “keep one’s agreements,” “strive to deliver value.” Empathy is already in the mix, and many customers are willing to pay a premium for empathic services even if they do not use the word “empathy.”

The astute businessperson, committed to expanding the enterprise, knows that “if you want to gather honey, do not knock over the bees’ nest.” This is distinct from empathy, but not by much. Thus, the task is to nurture the seeds of empathy already present in abundance, but lying in hiding in cynicism and denial, while making the case that smart organizations build and deliver value empathically.

The legendary Marshall Field, one of the inventors of the department store, on which the sun is now setting, and a kinder, gentler robber baron of capitalism, is famously quoted as saying, “Give the lady what she wants.” It made Field rich, and his workers well off. It is perhaps a sign of the times that Field’s was purchased by Macy’s some years ago, which has struggles of its own in a world in which retail, having been “Amazoned,” is not what it used to be. So the tenuousness of the market value of empathy can be measured by the mark down of the once storied Field’s Enterprises in the face of Internet shopping.

An alternative redescription of the fire sale of Marshall Field’s flagship stores is that individualized, personalized, customized one-on-one service has moved to the ultimate free market, the Internet, once again, disintermediating the disintermediators. I would not rule out expanded empathy in online cyberspace, but, even allowing for the convenience of shopping naked, it is a work in progress.

Even in mild and efficient bureaucracies, people misuse organizational rules and paper work to create resistance to empathy. Passing the buck, “Not my job,” “I’ll have to get back to you,” “We received no such request,” “I don’t know, and I can’t tell you when,” are common responses. Bureaucrats (which used to mean “office worker,” but is now a devaluing term) address such pseudo-answers not only to customers, but also to their coworkers and managers.

Resistance to empathy uses organizational rules and regulations to build protective walls, instead of teamwork. Without concern for the other person, bureaucracy unwittingly creates obstacles that prevent workers from being present with one another.

Mutually implementing and contributing to agreements with the organization and one another is not a priority. Perpetuating the bureaucracy is. Managing permissions and gaming the system occur to avoid work, rework, and overwork. The threat of uncompensated overtime and overwork consumes the energy required to get the job done.

People automatically and unwittingly fall into resistance to empathy, exploiting the tendency to be territorial.

The organization itself can show up as the unempathic authority figure—like the unempathic parent, who leaves the child feeling devalued, depressed, and de-energized. In response, an individual pushes back against the organization and its rules, disagreeing and speaking truth to power.

Rarely does the organization respond empathically to the individual, but rather urges the individual to conform. The individual asks for an accommodation. “Power” exhorts the individual to comply. “Power” says, “I did not make up the rules—I just enforce them.”

The individual states that the organization exists to serve the stake-holders, not to perpetuate its own rule-making. But rule-making has a way of becoming habit forming, if not addictive. Whenever a problem, issue, or breakdown occurs, the tendency is to try to formulate a rule to cover the new case. If the individual continues for any amount of time in a state of non-compliance, then “power” tends to experience a loss of authority, which is deeply threatening and unacceptable to “power.” Power escalates efforts to force compliance. Power imposes sanctions, increasing the cost to the individual. Empathy struggles to make a difference and be heard.

Compliance is definitely trending. This is the age of compliance. And there is nothing wrong with compliance as such. Stop on red; go on green. Yet sometimes so many “shoulds” exist that doing one’s job can end up on a slope of diminishing returns. Filling out the required paperwork takes an increasing percentage of the workday.

For example, some people train to become nurses because they care about other people, and they want to take care of them and their health. However, when virtually every patient encounter has to be documented to satisfy compliance regulations, then an eight-hour workday includes hours of electronic documentation. Many nurses are saying, “This is not what I signed up for.” Engagement—a synonym for empathic nursing encounters—struggles for space to make a difference.

“Compliance” includes conforming to acceptable boundaries and limits. No one is saying break the rules. No one is saying disregard boundaries. Rather one is saying relate to rules and boundaries empathically. But what does that mean? Even if the light is green, look both ways for emergency equipment or an inattentive driver running the light. Don’t be dead right. And as applied to empathy?

Empathy is about traversing boundaries between individuals. But these include not only boundaries between the self and the other, but boundaries between those in a position of authority and subordinates, between insiders and outsiders in communities, and between those who are insiders and those who feel left out—or are actually marginalized and have become invisible.

Humor and empathy versus cynicism

Cynicism and denial are the enemies of empathy. The empathy lessons are simple: Empathy up, cynicism down. Humor up, empathy up. Yet in the face of life’s challenges, setbacks, and struggles to survive, everyone gets cynical on a bad day.

Ground zero of cynicism and humor is Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoon. It is wickedly funny, because it expresses more than a grain of truth about dysfunctional, anti-empathic organizations.

In one classic example, the pointy-haired boss says that from now on the organization will assign job functions based on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test (MBPT). For those readers who may not know, the MBPT is the test that distinguishes introversion and extroversion, thinking and feeling, and related categories. The boss continues: “For those of you who do not have a personality, one will be assigned by the human resources department.”[ii] I must say that I am deeply ashamed of myself—I can’t stop laughing.

In humor, stress and psychological tension are created by violating a standard—saying people in corporate cubicles have no personality—and then the stress is released in laughter by the mechanism of the joke such as a pun, double meaning, or violation of expectations.

Humor is closely related to empathy in that both humor and empathy cross a boundary between the self and the other. However, unlike empathy, in which the boundary crossing occurs respectfully, with acknowledgement of the other person’s contribution or struggle, and with recognition of humanity, in humor the boundary between self and other is crossed with aggression, put down, or (in other cases) sexuality. The rule? The more objectionable the joke is, the funnier it is. The put down, “If you do not have a personality, one will be assigned by HR” is indeed wickedly funny; but it is also deeply debunking of the corporate world (and shaming of the individual), in which people come to feel like a gear in an inhuman mechanism.

So empathy for the long suffering inhabitants of corporate cubicles, whose personalities are at risk of being erased, does come to the surface after all. The laughter largely dissolves the cynicism. It is a commonplace in the organizational world that people function as replaceable cogs in a well-oiled machine. Therefore, the cartoon is an example of what not to do. Cynicism and shame drive out empathy; and, more importantly, driving out cynicism and shame create a space into which empathy stands a chance and can expand spontaneously.

How then does one drive out cynicism, shame, denial, and so on? The short answer is by calling it out, acknowledging it, interpreting it, and offering an alternative point of view. Not “alternative facts,” which have come to mean “spin” and “deception”; but an alternative perspective. It is now cynicism versus empathy in the organization.

For example: “Given the challenges we are facing, it is easy to become cynical. However, I have an alternative point of view. If we adhere to our commitments, then the way forward is clear. Not easy, but clear. We have to … remember who we authentically are, serve the customer, be inclusive, expand the community, be guided by our empathy (and so on). We have to live up to our commitment that everyone who comes in contact with the organization, even if we cannot completely solve their problem, is left whole and complete, treated with dignity and respect (and empathy).”

In the face of pervasive cynicism, it takes courage for a person to responds empathically. Such a person may be perceived as a threat to the prevailing, default attitude of “I won’t call you on your lack of authenticity if you don’t call me on mine.” Such a committed person is at risk in standing out from the crowd; but such a person just might provide the leadership, gather the power to make a difference, get the job done with grace and ease under pressure—and get a promotion.

One does not even have to stop being cynical, since it is so pervasive, but one has to adhere to one’s commitment to making a contribution, work to make a positive difference, and deliver value on one’s agreements.

Cynicism is shown up for what it is: taking the easy way out. The practice of empathy is hard work.

It is not only the executive suite, but also the front and back office and every part of the supply chain in between that are staffed by harried people pushed down into survival mode by a cruel gig economy where empathy is not a priority. Of course, empathy gets paid lip service. Please pardon the double negative—one dare not not pay empathy lip service.

However, all-too-often, empathy is too messy. It is too complex. We are not even sure what empathy would mean in an organizational context. We need results now. Suck it up. Get over it. Conform! Nor is there anything wrong with conforming as such. Submit your expense report on time. Even the customer wants to conform, if only he could get the product to function as designed. It is just that empathy is too time consuming, which means—it is too costly.

Yet never was empathy more important than when it seems there is no time for it. Positively expressed, as with most forms of resistance, the method of overcoming it is to call it out and interpret it. Once visible and explicit, it is less formidable.

The empathy of cross-functional teams, managing by walking around, making a contribution, building the bigger team, being inclusive of all the stake-holders, communicating goals and connecting the dots between individual accomplishments and the objectives of the entire organization—these create a clearing in which empathy shows up and makes a profound contribution to the success of the organization.

In addition, one’s employer is not one’s parent. Remember the sign in the common kitchen that says “Your mother does not work here—clean up your dirty dishes!”? Of course your mom told you that, too, and she did “work here” at home, and it still hasn’t snuck in.

Notwithstanding the rich comic possibilities, one’s employer and its leaders do indeed “work here.” Leaders provide powerful examples to whom we look for inspiration. This must give one pause about the state of leadership today. Just as children have to get empathy from their parents before they can give it to others, employees have to see and experience examples of empathy from their leaders to be effective in their own roles as individual contributors. The idea is not to be paternalistic, but to lead by example, the example of empathy.

The difference between banging on a stone and building a cathedral

Executives of all kinds have varying degrees of empathy and different attitudes towards it. It may sound like yet another burden that the CEO now also has to take the role of “Chief Empathy Officer.” This comes up for detailed discussion below in the chapter on the empathy application to “Business and empathy, capitalist tool.”

Meanwhile, when I am bold and ask executives what is the budget in the organization for empathy training and empathy consulting, they usually look at me with a blank stare or just say “zero.” However, when I ask what is the budget to reduce conflict, enhance teamwork, innovate and improve productivity, inspire participation, cause the staff to take ownership of the mission and honor their agreements, then the leaderships sees possibility where none had previously been present and makes it a priority to obtain a budget.

Simply stated, empathy training consists in surfacing the resistances to empathy, the pervasive fear and cynicism (and so on) in the organization that lurks just beneath the surface; interpreting the resistance, and driving it out: “It is perfectly understandable that you would be cynical, given what you have been through, but that is not who you (we) authentically are. Rather we are the possibility of [health, transportation, nutrition, education, retirement, housing, recreation, and so on (according to the mission of the organization)].”

What would it take to design agreements that overcome resistance and commit to aligning organizational and individual goals and then taking action to implement the agreements on an ongoing schedule? The empathy training consists in engaging in a sustained dialogue for possibility around agreements that work for everyone in delivering value.

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.

However, no organization can succeed without including every contributor and turning him or her loose to do the job at hand. Even in hierarchical organizations, where departmental boundaries are rigid, empathy works to demonstrate that good fences makes good neighbors but that gates are needed in the fences through which empathy can be practiced.

Expanding empathy is also on the critical path to innovation and enhancing productivity, because people feel gotten for whom they are as a possibility and as a contribution. They stop withholding and working in quasi-competitive isolation. When they get in touch with one another as possibilities, the business results take off.

Successful leaders know the importance of drawing on the talents of every contributor. When employees get a sense of how their role and contribution fits into the whole, they work to deliver on their commitments.

That is the key to improved productivity. People are generous in sharing their ideas for process and product improvement, because they feel confident their contribution makes a difference and is recognized. For example, two workers are going through the same motions, making the same gestures. An empathic milieu makes the difference between the one, who is banging with a hammer and chisel on a chunk of stone, and the other, who is building a cathedral. The worker’s gestures are exactly the same. The one is sentenced to hard labor; the other participates in greatness.

Notes

[i] Jodi Halpern. (2001). From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Scott Adams. (1996). The Dilbert Principle. New York: Harper Business.

Three books on empathy reviewed: The good, the bad, and the ugly

The first empathy book reviewed here is very good indeed. William Miller’s Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding  (Wipf and Stock, 114pp, ListeningWellEmpathicUnderstandingCoverArt($18US)) is a short book. Admirably concise. My short review is that, as I am author of three academic and one “how to” book(s) on empathy, this is the book that I wish I had written.

Listening Well contains the distilled wisdom of Miller’s several decades of practicing listening as the royal road to expanding empathy. Listening Well is a “how to” book, but the author is adamant that such a skill lives and flourishes in the context of a commitment to being empathic. (I hasten to add that, though Miller’s is the book I wish I had written, my own publications on empathy are significant contributions, and I shamelessly urge the reader to get them on the short list, too.)

Being with the other person without judgments, labels, categories, diagnoses, evaluations, and so on, is what empathy is about most authentically. It is not that such assessments do not occur. They do, but they almost always get in the way. Listening Well is way too short to be a textbook, but I can see it as being useful in a workshop, seminar, or as exercises in a class.

In case you are unaware of William Miller’s background, he is the innovator behind Motivational Interviewing. Listening well – the practice, not just the title of the book – is at the heart of this approach. In turn, the practice of listening well is based on empathic understanding. Miller is explicit in invoking the work of Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) Rogers was one of the founders of humanistic psychology, and Rogers’s person-centered psychotherapy provides the foundation for this results-oriented intervention.

Cris Beam is a would-be “bad girl,” who has written a very good book. In a world of constrained, limited empathy, the empathic person is a non-conformist. Beam is one of those, too, and succeeds in sustaining a nuanced skepticism about the alternatingIFeelYouCoverArt hype and over-valuation of empathy over against those who summarily dismiss it. Most ambivalently, she calls out the corporate infatuation with empathy. I paraphrase the corporate approach: Take a walk in the other person’s shoes in order to sell them another pair.

In Beam’s book I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy (Houghton Mifflin, 251 pp. ($26 US$)), Cris Beam makes empathy present. She brings forth empathy her engagement with difficult cases that challenge our empathy, including her own conflicts. In the process of struggling with, against, and for empathy, she succeeds in bringing forth empathy and making empathy present for the reader. From an empathic point of view, I can think of no higher praise.

It gets personal. Beam reports that she is a survivor of a floridly psychotic mother and a father who, at least temporarily (and probably to save himself), abandoned Cris to her fate with that woman. As a teenager, Beam escapes to her father and his second marriage only to be rejected when she “comes out” as a lesbian some years later. Fast forward to Beam’s own second marriage [both to women].

Beam’s partner announces that the partner (at that time a “she”) is committed to transitioning to becoming a man. Beam decides to support her (becoming him) and sticks with it through the top surgery, administering the testosterone shots. The partner tells Beam: “I will love you always [regardless of my gender].” Beam decides to believe the partner. (See what I mean? You can’t make this stuff up.)

 Nor is this a softball review, and I decisively disagree with Beam when she says that empathy is “mutual vulnerability” and approvingly quotes André Keet: “there are no neat boundaries between victim, perpetrators, beneficiaries, and bystanders …” (p. 191). While such a statement is descriptively accurate, once the father walks, leaving the psychotic mother and child behind, the commitment of empathy is to respect boundaries and (re)establish them when the boundaries have broken down or been violated.

Empathy is all about boundaries, and Beam, like so many of us, has her share of struggles with them. No easy answers here. But one final thought as my personal response to Beam’s thought provoking and inspiring work on empathy. We may usefully consider the poet Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.” I add: There is a gate in the fence, and over the gate is written the word “Empathy.”

The third empathy book, The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy (Routledge, 410pp, $245 US$), has a truly ugly hardcover price of $151 even after the Amazon discount as publishers continue to respond to economic pressures by

Cover Art: The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy

Cover Art: The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy

squeezing the life out of traditional print books that one can hold in one’s hand. The recommendation? Have the library order a copy (the paperback is $54.95, a better price, but nothing to write home about).

I have read, reviewed, and sometimes struggled, not only with the tangled history of empathy from David Hume to mindreading to mirror neurons, but with all thirty-three articles as a would-be empathic contribution for those who come after me. In many cases, I resonated empathically with the article. Bringing a rigorous and critical empathy to the article based on my life and experiences, sometimes the article “clicked,” i.e., worked for me. In other cases, I had to activate “top down” empathy, trying to create a context for a conversation, in which all I can otherwise see is an effort to maximize the number of stipulations that can be made to dance on the head of a pin—the pin being “empathy” (seems like about two dozen).

In every case, I try to be charitable; but in some cases the “empathy meter” goes in the direction of “tough love.” In one or two cases, I acknowledge my empathy breaks down completely in the face of academic over-intellectualization—an obvious occupational hazard in philosophy, but one that needs to be firmly contained in an engagement with a critical and rigorous empathy—and I simply recommend hitting the delete button—or a rewrite from scratch.

A “Handbook” promises to be a comprehensive engagement with the issues. So it is with deep regret, that I call out the fundamental incompletenesses. Nothing on education. Philosophers are not educators? Socrates was not a teacher? Mary Gordon’s program The Roots of Empathy (also the name of her book) includes bringing a baby into the grammar school classroom. Too developmental? Too psychological? The Philosophical Baby (Gopnik et al 2009)?

Also missing is the alternative point of view. The neurohype around mirror neurons is well represented; but what about the alternative point of view that such an entity as a mirror neuron does not even exist in humans and that the neurological infrastructure has a different configuration.[1]

The evolutionary context of empathy is considered; but missed are the role of the human mother-child matrix in the development of affective empathy, the empathizing effect of female sexual selection on male aggression, and the development of perspective taking in group selection in empathy as a “cheater detection system” and “empathic cruelty.” Empathy and morals are well represented; but little about social justice, overcoming prejudice, building bridges between disparate individuals and communities, or the tough related issues.

I am just getting warmed up here. Other incompletenesses are more fundamental—methodological. Empathy is not just the object of the inquiry, but it also needs to be the subject of the inquiry. We get our humanity from the other individual—and the other’s artistic expressions and social contributions.

This is subtle; so let me give an example. Expand your empathy: go to the art museum. Deepen your empathy: attend the symphony. Broaden your empathy: study a foreign culture or indigenous community. Stretch your empathy: read literary fiction. The engagement with aesthetics expands, trains, and develops our empathy; likewise, with the engagement with the other person. How does that work? The contributors seem not to have considered the possibility.

Instead empathy is on the defensive in too many places in the Handbook under review. Empathy is not represented as something of value that needs no apology and is worthy—along with (say) compassion and motherhood—of active promotion and expansion as a benefit to the community. Strangely enough, the breakdowns, failures, and misfirings of empathy—emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and communications lost in translation—are mistaken for empathy itself as if empathy could not misfire or go astray.

Nevertheless, bright spots appear. As Shoemaker points out in his article, the solution to a so-called parochial empathy that is limited to the “in group” is empathy itself – expanded empathy. Expand the boundaries of the community to be inclusive of those previously excluded. No doubt, easier said than done, but that is not a limitation of empathy itself, but of our need for expanded training and practice of empathy.  

The battle is joined. Dan Zahavi, an otherwise impeccable and astute phenomenologist, enters into apologetic worrying about the conundrum: Can we really ever appreciate, understand, empathize with another person’s experience without having had a similar experience [or words to that effect]? Zahavi makes good use of Max Scheler to show that we can. With the exception of Jenefer Robinson (on “Empathy in music”), what is not called out (or even hinted at) is that the encounter with the other person, art, music, and literature enhances and expands our empathy.

 In a world of limited empathy, the empathic person is a nonconformist. I wish I could write this Handbook is overflowing with nonconformists. Happily there are some and they produce several excellent articles—Zahavi, Gallagher, Ickes, Denham, Debes, Hollan, and John (Eileen); but it is otherwise filled with over-intellectualization, stipulations, neurohype, inaccurate phenomenological descriptions (mostly by the neuro-philosophers, not the phenomenologists), and tortured conceptual distinctions lacking in empathy. Seven out of thirty-three is a modest harvest.

One expects a Handbook on empathy would make empathy present for the reader. In the long, dreary march through 397 pages, thirty-three articles, I thirsted for it. Eileen John comes closest to doing so, and she is able to marshal the resources of empathy in the context of literature to help her get over what is admittedly a high bar. The scandal of this Handbook is that amid so many conceptual distinctions relating to empathy, empathy itself—empathy as a presence in the encounter with the reader—goes missing except in this one out of thirty-three articles.

What I am saying is that, with a few exceptions, largely concentrated in the contributions of Heidi Maibom and issues with her editing, there is nothing wrong with this Handbook; but there are so many things missing it is hard to know where to start with them. The practice of empathy is the source out of which emerge the ten thousand empathic distinctions in this Handbook. Key term: practice. Thinking and writing informed by the practice of empathy is the ultimate missing link.

Reviewing each of the thirty-three articles in the Handbook requires a book length treatment in itself. Therefore, I have provided one entitled A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy (Two Pairs Press, 162pp. $10US (Amazon)), in which extensive background on the issues is also engaged. In short, this is a book about the book, and is the complete book review. Each of the articles is reviewed in detail with seven separate and substantial sections orienting the reader to the issues, pro and con, engaged under core problems, history, understanding (mindreading), morals, aesthetics, and cultural issues, all relating to empathy. The recommendation? Check out the review, priced to cover printing plus a latte and biscotti for the reviewer, prior to engaging with the Handbook. You may get 80% of the value in the review; and you will not be bored.

[1]For example, see Gregory Hickok. (2014). The Myth of Mirror Neurons. New York: W. W. Norton. For further debunking of the neurohype see Decety et al. 2013, Vul et al. 2009, and Satel and Lilienfeld 2013.

REFERENCES

Complete, expanded Review of William Miller’s Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding: Review-of-William-Miller-Listening-Well

Complete, expanded Review of Cris Beam’s I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme EmpathyReview-of-Cris-Beam-I-Feel-You-Extreme-Empathy

Completed, expanded Review of Lou Agosta’s A Critical Review of a Philosophy of EmpathyAbout-Lou-Agosta-A Critical-Review-of-a-Philosophy-of-Empathy

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Top Ten Trends in Empathy Lessons for 2019

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

 

Empathy Lesson One: Empathy is different than compassion

Most people believe that empathy is compassion. I routinely ask the people in my empathy training classes to ask five of their acquaintances, “How do you define empathy?” and to do this without saying what they think empathy is. The respondents

Image of Buddha

The world definitely needs more compassion, but compassion is distinct from empathy

routinely report back with a story about altruism, charity, niceness, and prosocial behavior. “Prosocial behavior” is an action or intervention that helps one’s neighbors in deeds and words. And, heavens knows, the world needs more compassion. However, compassion is distinct from empathy. This series of posts will say how.

Most people regard empathy as something like a switch that one can turn on or off. One has it or one hasn’t. Even books that promise to train you in empathy say that the book is going to tell you how to get it. Note this implies you haven’t got it. This is not a good way to regard your prospective audience or client. This series proposes an alternative perspective on the matter. Empathy is more like a dimmer – a dial that one can tune up or down – depending on the situation. This is not easy to do, which is why training and practice are needed.

You know how we can feed everyone on the planet, so that there should be no need for people to get sick and die due to starvation? Thanks to the Green Revolution, miracle seeds, and the economies of scale of agri-business enough food exists to provide everyone with at least a minimum level of nutrition? Yet people are starving. People are starving in the Middle East, Africa, and even in desperate parts of the inner city in the USA. People are starving because of politics (in the negative sense), aggression, prejudice, break downs in social justice, and break downs in community. There is enough food to go around, but it is badly distributed. Likewise, with empathy. There is enough empathy to go around; but it is badly distributed. Organizational politics, human aggression and narcissism, stress and burnout, attempts to control and dominate, all result in empathy “going off the rails.”

Therefore, I and the proponents of empathy with whom I align do not call for “more” empathy, but rather for “expanded” empathy. The difference is subtle. Saying “we need more empathy here,” implies the person lacks empathy and that is an insult. In the extreme cases – serial killers, psychopaths, people on the autistic spectrum – they do in fact lack empathy in a technical, diagnosable sense. However, in most cases, people have a significant empathic ability with which the individual may be out of touch at a given moment or in a particular situation. Their empathy is implicit and is waiting to be expanded. Therefore, the call goes out for expanded empathy – to leverage that grain of sand of empathy that already exists and develop it, if not into a mountain, at least into large hill of empathy. Experience indicates that calls for “more empathy” result in a breakdown of empathy because the call is experienced as a dignity violation. “Are you saying that I lack empathy? How insulting. Humpf!” Well, not exactly. I am saying that expanded empathy would make a difference in getting unstuck, reestablishing relatedness, and overcoming the challenges at hand. This may seem like a rhetorical flourish, and perhaps at some level it is that too; but it is really an accurate description of the subtlety of the human situation in which people assume their own point of view is right – and, therefore, is the empathic one. With that in mind, we acknowledge this is going to take some work.

One reason that empathy training programs have not worked or have had mixed results is that they train the participants in compassion, being nice, conflict resolution, baby and child care, and a number of worthy and related tasks. This is all excellent, and the use of empathic methods in these areas is making the world a better place, so keep it up. There is nothing wrong with being nice and so on. Pardon the double negative: don’t not be nice. But something is missing – empathy. Expanding one’s empathy requires an engagement with one’s own inauthenticities around empathy. Most people would rather not look at their own blind spots about empathy. Most people would rather not look at how their own empathy breaks down and fails. Expanding one’s empathy requires engaging with one’s own resistance to empathy. Until we engage with our own resistance to empathy we will remain stuck in our blind posts, break downs, burn outs, and compassion fatigue.

The courageous person knows fear but is not stopped by it. The empathic person also knows fear – fear of being vulnerable, fear of resistance, fear of rejection, fear of compassion fatigue. This introduction acknowledges the empathy of the readers – your courage in taking on the issues that you need to engage in order to expand your empathy and that of the community. “Courage” does not mean not being afraid or experiencing fear. It means being afraid and going forward in spite of one’s fear. Likewise, with empathy. The empathic person goes forward into authentic relationships individually and in the community in spite of fear.

The challenge up front is to get access to the foundation of empathy. The architect building a structure knows that the building has to be based on bedrock. You have to go down to what is stable and abides. If the foundation does not go down to bedrock, the structure can be magnificent, beautiful, and elegant; but it will inevitably crack, lean over like the leaning Tower of Pisa, and then fall over due to a faulty foundation. If human relations are the building and empathy is the foundation of the building., then we first have to explore what is bedrock on which the foundation is supported. And if one regards empathy as the foundation of human relatedness, we are in effect asking – what is the bedrock of bedrock? On what is empathy itself founded? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: Authenticity. Authenticity is basic to empathy. Without authenticity, nothing works. Not even empathy.

For those who simply cannot stand the suspense of knowing that empathy is not compassion and wanting then to have a definition of empathy, here is the proposal that will be developed in this series. Empathy is the form of authentic human relatedness in which one person is receptive in a vicarious experience to the experience of the other person in which this vicarious experience is processed further in understanding of the other person as a possibility [empathic understanding], appreciates the perspective of the other person from the other’s point of view [the folk definition of empathy as talking a walk in the other’s shoes], and responds in such a way that the other person gets her or his own experience back from the listener in a form that is recognized as one’s own. It will take some work to unpack these four dimensions of empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness. That is why this is a series. Stand by for the next exciting episode.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD

10 Top Empathy Trends for 2017

This work aims to be educational in a brain-storming way about the role of empathy in the community and the market for empathy services. Hanna Holborn Gray has said that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make themfuturenextexit think.” I hereby also add: The intention of education is to expand one’s empathy. Amazingly enough that is not as comfortable as many people might imagine, which brings up to the first trend – resistance to empathy.

10. Resistance to empathy grows and is acknowledged. I may be a tad late with this one, since it is actually front section news in the New York Times, but just in case you have been living in a cave: Empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? Yet people can be difficult – very difficult – why should empathizing with them be easy? Yet most of the things that are cited as reasons for criticizing and dismissing empathy – emotional contagion, projection, misinterpretation, gossip and devaluing language – are actually breakdowns of empathy. With practice and training, one’s empathy expands to shift breakdowns in empathy to breakthroughs in understanding and building community.

9. Empathy is not an on-off switch; it is rather a dimmer or rheostat (and the public debate acknowledges this). Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable to burnout and compassion fatigue. The risk of compassion fatigue is a clue that empathy is distinct from compassion, and if one is suffering from compassion fatigue, then one is doing it wrong. The listener may get a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or problem, including their suffering, so the listener suffers vicariously, but, strange as it may sound, not too much. As noted, if one is over-whelmed by suffering, one is doing it wrong, and one needs to increase the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity. Empathy is like a dimmer – tune it up or tune it down. Empathy is like a filter – increase the granularity and get more of the other’s experience or decrease the granularity (i.e., open the pores) and get less. That is the whole point of a vicarious experience – and training one’s vicarious experiences as distinct from merger or over-identification – to get a sample or trace of the other’s experience without being overwhelmed by it. Empathy is not so much an on-off switch as it is a dimmer or rheostat to gradually turn the lights up or down – gradually expand or contract the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity. This point is completely missed in the otherwise engaging and spirited public debate feature in the New York Times where Hamid Zaki identifies empathy with compassion – and – how shall I put it delicately? – it is a conversation of deaf persons about the importance of listening from that point onwards[see http://tinyurl.com/gwmfpxp%5D. The recommendation? Listen, interpret the resistance and apply conflict resolution principles – identify and express grievances, invite self-expression, apply the soothing salve of empathy to the narcissistic injuries, elicit requests/demands, propose compromises / action items, iterate – until resolution.

8. Empathy is too important to be left to the psychologists. For psychologists empathy is by definition a psychological mechanism. For example, identification or transient identification or projection plus introjection (or visa versa) or mirroring or mirroring plus recognition of the other or inner imitation or motor mimicry. (This list goes on and this is not complete.) And while there is nothing wrong with psychological mechanisms or neuropsychological narratives built around their operation in the cerebral neural cortex and basal ganglia, there is something missing – empathy. So what then is empathy? Very short definition: It is being in the presence of another human as a human being with nothing else added. This [big word trigger alert] is the ontology of empathy – being in the presence of the other individual without anything else added. (This is called “ontology” – the study of being and ways of being, and it is definitely not psychology.) For example, Heinz Kohut, a psychiatrist from a time when psychologists were either psychoanalysts (or behaviorists), had a definition of empathy as vicarious introspection. This has an key ontological dimension as Kohut says “the idea of an inner life of man and thus of a psychology of complex mental states, is unthinkable without our ability to know via vicarious introspection – my definition of empathy […] what the inner life of man is, what we ourselves and what others think and feel life of the other individual would be inconceivable without empathy” (Kohut 1977: 304). The point is that empathy is both deeper and broader than a psychological mechanism – it is the basis for relatedness between individuals. Without empathy, no relatedness. Empathy grants being to relatedness. This matter of being with the other individual, in turn, becomes the foundation for community in an expanding circle of inclusion. As soon as one adds diagnostic categories, labels, arguments – which, admittedly, can be required in some contexts – empathy mis-fires, relatedness goes missing, and resistance to empathy expands. Thus, an empathic conversation is frequently challenged to find the equilibrium between using categories and distinctions to access the experience of the other individual while being with the other and being receptive to the vicarious experience of their suffering (or joy) as another human being.

7. Life coaching gets traction as empathy consulting. Empathy and life coaching intersect (again). The reason an Olympic athlete has a coach is not because she is not good at what she does. Positively expressed, people get a coach when they want to take their game – their performance – to the next level. Many people are already good at what they do and are committed to expanding their results in one area or another such as career, relationships, physical well-being, contribution to community, or peace of mind, in which their experience indicates something is missing. People get a therapist when they want a diagnosis or when they are pushed into survival and need to find a way out. Nothing wrong with that – indeed it can be critical path to transforming suffering into productive results. However, there is good news here – many people are not suffering but have an area in their lives that needs work to provide the results to which they are committed. This is where empathy is oxygen for the soul and can facilitate breathing easier in climbing the stairs to self-satisfaction in accomplishment. Yes, performance may usefully be measured “by the numbers” with meaningful data, but you don’t just need data, expanded empathy is required too.

6. “Hug a stranger” becomes an empathy trend. I am not making this up – well, okay, in a way, I am. The human body is the best picture of the human soul. So hugging another person is not just an emotional and physical but also a spiritual gesture. In this case, hugging and the “space of hugging” starts a journey of discovery that gives us access and reveals that there are far fewer strangers in the world – possibly none – then we at first imagined. I learned about this trend from Stone Kraushaar who distinguishes the physical embrace – the hug [with permission] – between two people from the “space of hugging,” which (on a good day) opens up a whole universe of empathy, sharing, transforming, building community, and being with mutual humanity. While acknowledging that hugging is not empathy, in the context of Stone’s work (and pending book), it is – in the deep sense of being in the presence of another human being without anything extraneous being added or subtracted. So if you see people walking down the street stopping for conversation, asking permission, breaking out in spontaneously hugging one another, you will know they have been engaging with Stone’s provocative proposal. You just might see yourself and encounter your own humanity in another in a new way you had not previously imagined. The empathic point is that you start by thinking these other people “out there” are strangers but when you get to know them well enough to be comfortable with a hug, you and they belong to the same community – you are not strangers after all.

5. Health insurers promise empathy, do not deliver, and continue to collect monopoly rents. The empathy gap widens. Health insurers maintain a firm grip on the market for empathy-related “behavioral health” services without actually providing any. This is the only candidate trend from last year that I am repeating, since it is still accurate but a work in progress – and, unfortunately, picking up speed, going in the wrong direction. The Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) – reportedly to be terminated with extreme prejudice as this piece is about to be posted – promised to equalize benefits for medical benefits such as annual physical health checkup (including $800 worth of blood work) with mental health services such as psychotherapy. At the risk of being cynical, I don’t know if the reader has tried to collect lately or services rendered. The war stories, pretexts for nonpayment, and simple violations of their own rules – e.g., timely response – by insurers continue to mount. One feels a certain dissatisfaction with the lack of solutions. What to do about it? In spite of claims to the contrary, the recommendation from insurers seems to be: “But your majesty, the people have no mental health benefits. Then let them pay cash! And then let them eat cake.”

4. Medical doctors “get it” – empathy is good for your health. Empathy gets traction as an evidence-based intervention. “Evidence-based everything” is the gold standard in medical and so-called “behavioral health” interventions; and that is as it should be (Jeremy Howick, (2011)). The “gold standard” of the “gold standard” is double-blind testing, which works especially well in the cases of drugs in which one can indeed “double-blind” the test so that neither the researcher nor the recipient knows who is getting what pill. While judgments based on clinical practice, tacit knowledge, and deep life experience will continue to have a role, these need to be qualified by the best available evidence. But here is the issue: There are some interventions such as penicillin and using a parachute when jumping out of an airplane that seem to limit or even defy the gold standard. It would be unethical not to give someone penicillin if they were infected with an infection serious enough to require such treatment, since it is a matter of historical accident that penicillin was invented prior to the “evidence based” paradigm shift. And, as regards using a parachute, that case is the reduction to absurdity of not using common sense as a criteria in deciding what counts as evidence. What is going on here? The answer: The effect size is so large that it outweights and overwhelms any hidden confounding factors and so rises to the level of evidence (without quotation marks) [Howick: 5, 11]. The :effect size” is a function of the the fact – the evidence – that there are so many examples and so much experience that penicillin works – that parachutes – work that the risk of one’s over-looking some other confounding variable is vanishingly small. It really was the penicillin, not (say) the effects of the alignmnet of the planets hidden behind the penicillin. Likewise, with empathy. The trend here is that research will emerge that puts the use of empathy in human relations as demonstrably so effective in the medical and behavioral health contexts in question that not to apply empathy would be like not prescribing antibiotics against a bacterial infection. Empathy has been effective in shifting the suffering and transforming the psychic pain throughout history. The criticism of empathy has usually been that it results in burnout, compassion fatigue. But penicillin, too, has to be properly dosed or the results will be unpredictable. Regarding empathy, see the discussion above about empathy not being an on-off switch but a rheostat that requires training to get just right. Examples of peer-reviewed publications exist in which empathy was shown to be effective (in comparison with less empathy) in correlating with favorable outcomes in diabetes, cholesterol, and the common cold (?!) and are cited in the bibliography (see M. Hojat et al, (2011), John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al, (2014), David P. Rakel et al, (2009)). Expect this work to expand and gain traction in other areas such as psychiatry and cognitive behavioral therapy. In short, not to begin with empathy would be like jumping out of the airplane without a parachute or not providing penicillin when the infection was bacterial. Curiously enough, among medical doctors, psychiatrics are alleged to be “lagging adopters”; among psychologists, those specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy are – note that Arthur Ciaramicoli claims to have it both ways (in a book (2016) that I wish I had written).

3. The culture of empathy taps into the power of empathy. Empathy gets in touch with its own power and becomes self-aware as being powerful. This is (and would be) completely unpredictable. At least initially that looks like the culture of empathy partnering with assertiveness training, fair fighting, and being self-expressed. The culture of empathy gets traction in conflict resolution, building community, setting limits to the anti-empathic methods of bullies; and this trend gets the attention that it so richly deserves. The CultureOfEmpathy [one word] is the web site and brain child of Edwin Rutsch, whose has literally interviewed dozens of empathy scholars and researchers (including myself) and is one of the most inclusive people I have ever met. Here is the issue: in fighting off bullies how does one do so in such a way that one does not become a bully oneself? The recommendation is direct: empathy is about setting boundaries between self and other and crossing boundaries between self and other in a way that enhances mutual understanding and community. No one was ever required by empathy to be a door matt. Since empathy works best and seems to require that people relate as equals in the matter of their humanity, the relation between empathy and power has always been fraught. It requires work. When the power relations as too asymmetrical or when force (violence) is being used to coerce an outcome, then a level playing field has to be reestablished for empathy to get traction. Then the empathic thing to do is fight back – self-defense is its own justification. Simple as that (though, as usual, the devil is in the details). Bullying – and related forms of aggression are the contrary of empathy – crossing boundaries in ways that generate misunderstanding and the dehumanizing aspects of shame and humiliation. Set firm boundaries.

2. Empathy becomes known as reducing inflammation and restoring homeostatic equilibrium to the body according to evidence based research along with mindfulness (a form of meditation), Yoga, Tai Chi, sensory deprivation and certain naturally occurring steroids (Antoni MH, Lutgendorf SK, Blomberg B et al. (2011), David Black, Steve Cole, Michael Irwin et al, (2013), Michael R Irwin and Richard Olmstead, (2012)). Although an over-simplification, when the human body is attacked by bacteria, it mounts an inflammatory defense that sends macrophages to the site of the attack and causes “sick behavior” in the person. The infected person takes to bed, sleeps either too much or too little, has no appetite (or too much appetite), experiences low energy, possibly has a fever, including the “blahs,” body aches, and flu-like symptoms. This response has evolved over millions of years and is basically healthy as the body fights off the infection using its natural immune response. However, fast forward to modern times. This natural response did not imagine the stresses of modern life back when we were short proto-humanoids inhabiting the Serengeti plain and fending off large predators. Basically, the body responds in the same way to the chronic stress of modern life – the boss at work is a bully, the mortgage is over-due, the children are acting out, the spouse is having a midlife crisis – and the result is “sickness behavior” – many of the symptoms of which resemble clinical depression – but there is no infection. The inflammation become chronic and the body loses its sensitivity to naturally occurring anti-inflammatory hormones, which would ordinarily kick in to down regulate the inflammation after a few days. Peer reviewed papers demonstrate that interventions such as those indicated above reduce biological markers of inflammation and restore equilibrium. This is also a metaphor for when an angry [“inflamed”] person is listened to empathically, they [often] calm down and regain their equilibrium. The trend here is that empathy migrates onto the short list. Now for something completely different …

1. A definable market for empathy software and business services emerges. Virtual reality (VR) software meets and expands empathic understanding. A company named Psious [psious.com] has developed a diverse set of applications for virtual reality goggles to simulate situations that psychotherapy clients may find anxiety inspiring such as flying on a commercial jet, public speaking, shots (e.g., with needles) at doctor visits and many more (see my Blog post on Psious (http://tinyurl.com/jyuxedq)). Two other companies that are a software initiative relating to empathy include Affectiva [affective.com], which automates Paul Ekman’s facial action coding scheme (see my blog post (http://tinyurl.com/hymj3mj)), and Empathetics [empathetics.com], not yet reviewed. From admittedly incomplete reports, the engaging thing about Empathetics is that its value proposition is to train medical doctors in empathy using biofeedback under a program licensing intellectual property developed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In addition, this medical initiative is distinct from but related to two companies (Business Solver and Maru/VCR) which call out “empathy” explicitly as a key differentiator in what they offer their business clients. Business Solver is branding an empathy monitor for business success in a human resources platform and related services. This includes the disturbing data point that some 61% if business leaders see their firms as being empathic whereas only 24% of employees do. What to do about it constitutes the bulk of the engagement. Maru/VCR has a database based on the Vision Critical Research platform that enables its clients to build customer communities and get access to breakthrough innovations and insights in market research.

0. Businesses “get it” – empathy is good for business. Profit is a result of business operations, not “the why” that motivates commercial enterprise. And if profit shows up that way (as the “the why”), then you can be sure that, with the possible exception of commodities hedging, it is a caricature of business and a limiting factor. Business prospers or fails based on its value chain and commitment to delivering value for clients and consumers. However, some of the things that make people good at business make them relatively poor empathizers. Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing as the leaders get entangled in solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the technologies required to sustain operations. Yet empathy is on the critical path for serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), psyching out the competition [not exactly empathy but close enough?], building teams and being a leader who actually has followers. When the ontology of empathy exposes it as the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes nearly synonymous with expanding business. For example, building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, team building, are the basis for brand loyalty, employee commitment, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind? Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy, though ultimately both are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. Specific firms that have emerged – albeit in the context of an early market – to address these aspects of empathy in business and are called out in trend #2 above.

[These ten top trends in empathy for 2017 should be read in connection with the score for those from last year (2016) [see http://tinyurl.com/gub7pew]. And, yes, I know that there are actually eleven this year – bonus!?]

Bibliography

Antoni MH, Lutgendorf SK, Blomberg B et al. (2011), Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Management Reverses Anxiety-Related Leukocyte Transcriptional Dynamics. Biological Psychiatry, 2011; 15: 366-372.

David Black, Steve Cole, Michael Irwin et al, (2013), Yogic meditation reverses NF-kB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trail. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2013 March 38(3): 348 – 355.

Arthur Ciaramicoli, (2016), The Stress Solution. New York: New World Library.

Jodi Halpern, (2013), “What is Clinical Empathy?” J Gen Intern Med 2003 Aug: 18(8): 670 – 674.

Hojat et al, (2011), Physicians empathy and clinical outcomes for diabetic patients, ACAD MED MAR; 86(3): 359 – 64: doi: 10.1097ACM.0b013e3182086fe1

Jeremy Howick, (2011). The Philosophy of Evidence-Based Medicine, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Michael R Irwin and Richard Olmstead, (2012). Mitigating Cellular Inflammation in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Tai Chi Chih. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2012 September; 20(9): 764 – 722.

John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al, (2014), The Influence of the Patient-Clinician Relationship on Healthcare Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials, PLOS ONE [Public Library of Science], April 2014, Vol. 9, Issue 4.

Heinz Kohut, (1977). The Restoration of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.

David P. Rakel et al, (2009),”Practitioner Empathy and the Duration of the common Cold, Fam Med 41(7): 494 – 501.

Lou Agosta, (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery. London: Routledge.

_________ (2014). A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Pivot.

__________ (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project