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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.

The Limits of Empathy in Politics

If freedom of expression and free speech are flourishing, but no one is listening, then empathy becomes a tree that falls in the forest when no one is present. Empathy does not make a sound – or a difference. 

Even in politics empathy is always empathy. However, politics brings along a whole new set of questions, issues, and challenges by with which empathy is confronted and to which empathy gets applied. The political becomes personal, unsettlingly so at times.

What then is the limit of empathy in politics? This is the limit: the practice of empathy does not work well with bullies, sociopaths, psychopaths, QAnon style delusional thinkers, the criminally insane, and [some] autistic children. 

The prevalence of bullying in the school playground and politics is widespread and toxic; and one should never underestimate the power of empathy. Never. Yet, if your political opponent is behaving like a bully, empathy is not going to be enough. You will need to find supplementary methods – empathy alone will not work on her or him. These hard cases literally will not “get it.” They will not perceive the empathy. They will not experience your empathy. 

Worse yet, some bullies and psychopaths will accept your empathy and turn it against you, the better to control, manipulate, and dominate you. If the practice of empathy is not the way forward, how then does one deal with bullying without becoming a bully oneself?

The answer is direct: set limits. Set boundaries. Thus, far and no further! Stay in your own lane. Get back into your own corner. Stay in your own space. Keep your hands to yourself! In so far as empathy is all about firm yet flexible boundaries between the self and the other, a rigorous and critical empathy is engaged here; but until the boundary is reestablished, empathy cannot come into its own. Indeed once boundary violations occur and safety or security is at risk, the issue is no longer an empathic one – call for backup, implement self-defense measures, or escape and continue the struggle on another day.  

The FBI hostage negotiating team understands that empathy reduces rage and upset; and they use empathy in context for that purpose, though, as far as I know, they do not use the word “empathy” as such. Yet once the bullets start flying, the time for empathy has passed. Send in the swat team. For an illuminating article on the margins of empathy see Elizabeth Bernstein on “Advice From a Hostage Negotiator” (WSJ.com 06/14/2020) [https://on.wsj.com/3ajoYon]. Law enforcement gets empathy. Bad guys watch out. Once again, never underestimate the power of empathy. Never. 

In so far as empathy is all about respecting the boundaries between self and other, one group and another group, boundary setting is relevant to politics and empathy. So if one can reestablish a boundary, then empathy can be reintroduced, gradually, to guide us in how to cross back and forth across the boundary without submitting to bullying, provoking a temper tantrum, or getting stuck in breakdown. 

Yet the shadow of the tribalism falls over empathy in politics. Empathy gets a bad rap because empathy is often limited in contemporary political debates to empathy of identity. However, empathy – and that is the innovation here – empathy is also empathy of differences. Key terms: empathy of identity and empathy of difference.

With an empathy of differences, in addition to identity politics, we get a politics of recognition. 

Empathy shows up when one person encounters the other person and recognizes his or her differences. I hasten to add no one is asking anyone to give up or devalue his or her identity. The suggestion is that the Empathy of Differences lets identities flourish in a space of acceptance and toleration created by empathic recognition. The empathic recognition in turn creates a political arena where people can debate and compromise and get things done. 

Talking a walk in the other person’s shoes yields an empathy of differences. One discovers the otherness of the other. The shoe rarely fits exactly right. One discovers where the shoe pinches – but the other’s shoe almost inevitably pinches at a different spot when it pinches one’s own foot, because the other foot is slightly longer or shorter than one’s own. 

Though we are different, our interests, experiences, and aspirations as human beings are recognized.

Illustration of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln debating his opponent Steven Douglas in front of a crowd, circa 1858. (Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Our interests and aspirations have areas of overlap – for example, we want our children to flourish; we want to be able to make a contribution to the community; we want to be secure in our private lives and preference. With goals pursued along different paths, our possibilities converge or diverge without conflict. Our opportunities align in parallel or intersect at right angles instead of clashing. We are able to cooperate and embrace workability instead of obstructing one another. We are able to build instead of tear down. 

Once again, there is nothing wrong with the empathy of identity, but something is missing. What is missing is difference. The empathy of identity is ultimately that of proximity to family, tribe, and local community. As noted, there is nothing wrong with that. It is excellent. We would be less than human without it. But the empathy of identity is ultimately derivative and incomplete without an empathy of differences. 

If one is limited to an empathy of identity, the result is tribalism. “I get you, man, and you get me, bro, because we are alike.” No one is proposing to try completely to abolish tribalism, but tribalism is definitely limiting and constraining.

All these different tribes sets in motion a trend, which arguably is tribalism’s own undoing, dissolving its identity – Republicans, Democrats, Progressive, Conservatives, Libertarians, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Quakers, all 198 member nations of the United Nations – not to mention the Chicago Cubs Baseball team. So many identities – so many tribes. If one gets and belongs to enough of them, identity starts to dissolve. 

Tribalism itself sets in motion a dialectic whereby each individual can belong to multiple tribes with multiple identities and affiliations. If you participate in enough tribes and enough overlap between tribal identities, the notion of identity starts to dissolve into a kind of melting pot of multiculturalism, communalism, or ecumenical spirituality, market place of competing political ideologies. Even if the melting pot never completely melts, it can at least become a colloidal suspension – cosmopolitanism – where the identities and differences are fine-grained enough not to subvert individual diversity or the aspiration to commonly shared values. 

But absent such a dialectic of dissolution into a melting pot of identities– for example, in traditional societies or insular communities – the empathy within the communal group works well but breaks down at the boundary at which one encounter the other individual and group and their differences.

The innovative point here – to emphasize once again – is that empathy is about identity and similarity, but it is just as importantly about differences. 

Speaking in the first person, when I encounter an individual who is different than I am, then I have an experience of otherness. However, every person I encounter, without exception, is different than I am, even if there are similarities. The other is different than I am. But without the other individual there is no empathy. Empathy is born in otherness. Empathy is born in the difference. Empathy is born in the difference of otherness and in the otherness of difference. 

If that starts to spin, enjoy the ride.  At least you are not alone – as the practice of empathy is the one thing you cannot do all by yourself. Empathy is a function of otherness. Without the other individual, there is only myself – oneself. 

Solipsism is the philosophical position – the illusion – there the entire universe consists of oneself very alone – hence, solus ipse. One is the creator of one’s entire universe – life is literally but a dream – until one encounters the other – then one wakes up to the reality of the resistance of the other – and the resistance of the other emerges from differences – the otherness of the other. You need an other – and the other individual’s differences – to get empathy started. 

Being open to the other person’s feelings, affects, experiences, beliefs, and resonating in tune with the other individual, yields inevitably both the similarity and differences of those feelings, affects, experiences, and beliefs. That is the empathic moment: I realize we are different and that difference lives and becomes accessible in the space of acceptance and toleration between us. 

This brings us again to the limit of empathy in politics. Thus, the fundamental political question for a rigorous and critical empathy in politics is what to do politically with individuals and groups that one cannot stand. 

What to do with individuals and groups who arouse a visceral dislike and antipathy that are acknowledged to be irrational? What to do with individuals and groups with whom one disagrees on policy, practices, perspectives, procedures, customs, or spiritual practices? The tribalism of the empathy of identity is not going to get you of this impasse. 

The reduction to absurdity of the empathy of identity is humorist Tom Lehrer’s satirical song,  “National Brotherhood Week”:  “Shake the hand of someone you can’t stand.” 

Humor and empathy are closely related. One crosses a boundary between self and other in both cases. In humor one crosses the boundary with aggressive or sexual innuendo; in empathy one crosses the boundary with gracious permission and generosity. 

Lehrer predictably succeeds in being wickedly funny, though deeply cynical, as he sings an upbeat tune: “…The rich folks hate the poor folks and the poor folks hate the rich folks. All of my folks hate all of your folks – it’s American as apple pie! But during National Brotherhood Week – Sheriff Clarke and Lena Horne are dancing cheek-to-cheek.” Note that Clarke was a notoriously committed racist and segregationist during the early Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and Lena Horne was a celebrated African-American singer of romantic smoky ballads – not a likely match up on anyone’s dating site.

While shaking the hand of one’s sworn opponent (or an elbow bump in a pandemic) is always a good start, it is ultimately incomplete. Unless an empathic context of toleration and acceptance is established for the hand shaking, the risk of shaking hands with someone you can’t stand is that one will end up despising the other even more. 

Lehrer’s song ends by expressing the unexpressed elephant in the room “…[Be] nice to people who are inferior to you / It’s only for a week so have no fear / Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.” 

As the song implies, absent additional training in and work on empathy and critical thinking, the hypocrisy and prejudice live on. The practice of empathy becomes the practice of a rigorous and critical empathy. 

The disciplined practice of a rigorous and critical empathy is on the path to well functioning political community and successful engagement with one’s political opponents and rivals. A rigorous practice of empathy requires critical thinking to guide it, and, in turn, critical thinking requires empathy to open the space of relatedness, acceptance, and toleration of differences. 

This rigorous and critical empathy includes critical thinking. Critical thinking includes such skills as questioning in the sources of one’s facts and beliefs, examining and questioning one’s assumptions, assessing conflicting reports in the media, looking for hidden assumptions and biases, examining one’s own for conflicts of interest, recognizing one’s own mistakes and cleaning them up at once, basic listening skills, taking turns, and seeing if one’s conclusions are actually implied by one’s facts and reasoning from these facts. These are all important. But the number one skill of critical thinking is putting oneself in the place of one’s opponent, competitor, or colleague and considering the alternative point of view – cognitive empathy. Such empathy becomes a priority in a political context.

In conclusion, when empathy becomes a rigorous and critical empathy, then the limits of empathy in politics are the limits of politics, not the limits of empathy.

References

Tom Lehrer, National Brotherhood Week [performed]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIlJ8ZCs4jY

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project