Empathy: “soft skill” right?

Fluffy stuff. Important in the family or in the caring professions, but in business?

In the context of building adaptive organisations, turns out empathy is one of the most important faculties required for learning. In 2012, researchers at McGill University found a direct connection between empathy and learning capacity. Mummy rats who licked and groomed their pups more, reared pups with higher IQs. You’re no rat, but it seems plausible that humans learn and grow best in empathic environments. Jean Baker Miller includes zest, empowerment and connection as benefits of mutual empathy.

These empathy-rooted benefits sound good right? But so often when we think we’re being empathic, we’re not actually connecting to the other person’s internal state at all. We’re in fact blocking people from getting close to how they really feel. We fall into what Michael Sahota calls an empathy trap. Here are my six empathy traps below – beware!

1. The Big Up

Looks like: “You’re better than her. You’re better than this.”

This is when you encourage someone to see themselves as bigger than their situation, or better than the person they think has wronged them. By doing this you’re bolstering the person’s mental defences against the real feelings they have: maybe anger or sadness.

Try instead: “Does she frustrate you? Are they making you angry?”


2. The Flat Line

Looks like: “You’re fine. Be strong. Don’t let it bother you.”

This may be the most obvious trap. This is when you encourage someone to explicitly push down their feelings. When we’re doing this, we may feel like we’re being helpful, but we’re really asking people to close down, rather than open up.  

Try instead: “You look upset…”


3. The Balance

Looks like: “Come on – think of all those people starving in the world.”

With The Balance, we may feel that we’re helping people to get some perspective. However, everyone’s experience of the world is subjective: pain is pain is pain. Let’s take a privileged princess and a rickshaw driver. Say the princess’ pet chihuahua breaks a leg and the rickshaw driver’s brakes a wheel and now his family won’t eat for three days. These scenarios may be identical physiologically for the princess and the driver. When empathising, we must put aside our objective evaluations of someone’s relative situation in life, and attempt to connect with their deeper state.

Try instead: “Tell me how you feel about this.”


4. The Californian

Looks like: “You’re amaze-balls, the most incredible person I know!”

With The Californian, no matter how awful someone may feel about themselves, you simply tell them how awesome they are. This may be more about us attempting not to feel whatever upset they are feeling. When empathising, the aim isn’t about having the other person think better thoughts about themselves, it’s about supporting them to feel fully whatever they have to feel and reflecting that back. More positive thoughts may, or may not, emerge when someone feels heard.

Try instead: “I know you think you suck right now. Tell me more about that.”


5. Mr Fix It

Looks like: “Come, buck up, let’s fix this!”

With Mr Fix It, we think we’re being constructive by having people think ‘less problem, more solution’. This may feel valuable, but often lacks empathy. To empathise, we must first build emotional connection.

Try instead: “What happened? Where are you at with this?”


6. “Fear Not”

Looks like: “It won’t be that bad. Everything will be just fine.”

With the “Fear Not”, we feel we’re doing good by painting a rosy picture of the future. In fact, we’re helping them to block their true fears. If we’re empathising, better to help them explore the extent of their worry and let new perspectives emerge.

Try instead: “You look like you’re concerned. What’s going on?”