The limitlessness of empathy

The limitlessness of empathy

After spending 21 years training and coaching people how to use the skill of empathetic listening at work, I was disturbed to read an article in the Harvard Business Review called ‘The Limits of Empathy’ by Adam Waytz (January-February 2016).

The HBR article asserts that: empathising is exhausting; there is a finite amount of empathy a person can give; and empathy can cause lapses in ethical judgement.

“Not true, not true, not true”, I yelled!

On more careful analysis of the article, it became clear that the author is discussing the potential pitfalls of ‘compassion’ rather than ‘empathy’ (and indeed refers to ‘compassion fatigue’). Compassion is: sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

I can see that this might be exhausting, especially if the listener tries to solve everyone else’s problems. I can see that people may not be able to do this all the time. I can see that feeling compassion for another may cause lapses in ethical judgement. When I re-read the article substituting the word ‘compassion’ in all the places where the author had written ‘empathy’, it made more sense.

The problem is confusion around the definition of empathy. The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. I agree with the ‘ability to understand the feelings of another’ bit, but disagree that the empathiser needs to ‘share’ those feelings. I can understand that my friend is excited about the new Star Wars film, even though I think it’s boring. I can understand that my boss is worried that my presentation won’t impress the board, even though I’m confident it will be a roaring success.

Contemporary researchers tend to differentiate between ‘Cognitive Empathy’, ‘Emotional Empathy’ and ‘Compassionate Empathy’. Cognitive Empathy is about perspective taking, and our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions. It is this skill that is most useful in work situations.

The purpose of empathy is to convince the other person you have an appreciation of their point of view. Perhaps the Oxford Dictionary intends the word ‘share’ to mean ‘prove your understanding by saying it aloud’.

So if you thought about, and then stated…

How the person feels (their emotion)

About what (the event that caused it)

Why (the reason that event caused them to have that emotion)

…you would be really listening to them and would convince the other person that you have an appreciation of their point of view. As if by magic, the other person no longer has a need to convince you of their feelings and point of view, because you have already proved you understand it (by summarising it succinctly).

When people feel listened to, they are more likely to then listen to you.

If you want to know how to empathise with everyone you meet, without getting exhausted, and without eroding ethics, have a look at this explainer video by PMSL:

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