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Empathy is a dial, not an on-off switch
People treat empathy as if it were an “on-off” switch.
Turn it “on” for friends and family; turn it “off” for the “bad guys”. Turn empathy “on” for coworkers, customers, and insiders; turn empathy “off” for competitors, for compliance, and for efficiency and speed. Turn empathy on for the hometown baseball team, the Cubs or Sox, if you are from Chicago like I am or turn it off for
the competition, especially New York teams such as the Mets or Yankees! If you have encountered die-hard fans, then you know that I am only partially joking. However, in business today—as in sports and as in dating with prospective romantic partners—you are competing in the morning and cooperating in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the switch tends to get stuck in the off position.
The guidance? Empathy is a tuner or dial, not an “on-off” switch. Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable and exposed 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.
Instead of practicing empathy, maybe you are being too compassionate. If you are flooded, maybe—just maybe—you are doing it wrong. In empathy, the listener gets a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or experience, including their suffering. The listener suffers vicariously, but without being flooded and overwhelmed by the other’s experience.
This is not to say that some accounts of trauma would not overwhelm and flood anyone. They would. They do. However, we are here engaging with the example of a committed listener who spends his or her day listening to a series of depressed, anxious, or otherwise upset people.
Empathy is like a dial, lever, or tuner—turn it up or turn it down. If one is overwhelmed by suffering as one listens to the other person’s struggles, one is doing it—practicing empathy—incorrectly, clumsily, and one needs expanded skill training in empathy.
The whole point of a vicarious experience—as distinct from merger or over-identification—is to get a sample or trace of the other’s experience without being inundated by it. Key term: sample the other’s experience. One needs to increase the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity to reduce the emotional or experiential “load.”
Another way of saying the same thing? Empathy is a filter—decrease the granularity and get more of the other’s experience or increase the granularity (i.e., close the pores) and get less.
The empathic professional can expect to have a vicarious experience of the other person’s experience. If the other person is suffering, then he will have a vicarious experience of suffering. He will have a sample of the other person’s suffering. He will have a trace affect of the sadness or grief or anger or fear (and so on) of whatever is a burden to the other person. It will be a toe or an ankle in the water instead of being up to the neck in it. The experience will just be a taste of brine rather than drowning.
The power in distinguishing between empathic receptivity and empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness, is precisely so you can divide and conquer the practice and performance of empathy.
If your “empathic distress” indicates too much openness, do not be “closed off,” but tactically reduce the openness. Increasing the granularity of your empathic receptivity reduces the empathic receptivity and reduces your empathy as a whole. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, then you need to tune down your compassion and expand your empathy. If you are experiencing burnout, then it is likely that emotional contagion is leading to empathic distress. In this case, you need to tune down one’s empathy.
Interested in more best practices in empathy? Order your copy of Empathy Lessons, the book. Click here.
(c) Lou Agosta PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project