Before I begin, why should hard-nosed business types give two sh*ts about empathy?

Performance, performance, performance.

Human beings create great, competition-slaying companies through collaboration, passion, and creativity.

I believe that we simply can’t have the creative, connecting, passionate knowledge workers that John Hagel calls for in his recent article without high-levels of empathy amongst members of an organisation.

Empathy is a part of the substrate in which human passion blooms. As I posted here, Jean Baker Miller enumerates the benefits of mutual empathy as the Five Good Things:

  • Zest
  • Empowerment
  • Self awareness
  • Self worth
  • Connection

If we want to improve our performance as knowledge workers, developing our empathy skills is essential.

When I read Micheal Sahota’s post on the three empathy trap, I was inspired not just because it provides a great perspective on how not to do empathy, but also because it was written in the context of improving business performance. Here is his graphic below:

I love his three traps:

  1. “Even worse”
  2. “Look on the bright side”
  3. “Problem solving”

I propose a “fourth and fifth” below:

  1. “You’re better than this”
  2. “Don’t let it get to you”


4. “You’re better than this”

A common false attempt at empathy is to tell the person that they’re bigger or better than the situation, or their pain or the other person.

Ex-consultant and therapist Dr Ingeborg Bosch defines viewing oneself as superior to others (or situations) as the ‘False Power’ defence. This is a subconscious strategy to avoid feeling the underlying pain associated with having felt inferior and unloved during early life. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and religious hatred can all be examples ‘False Power’ manifesting. By telling others that they’re ‘better than this’, we’re helping them engage their ‘False Power’ defence. In so doing, we’re not empathising, we’re actively helping them to avoid self-empathy. If we truly wish to empathise, it’s better to ask ‘opening’ questions such as:

  • ‘How do you feel?’
  • ‘Where do you feel the feeling in your body?’
  • ‘How would you express this feeling using your body?’
  • ‘Is this a familiar feeling? When have you felt this before?’
  • ‘If this person were in front of you right now, what would you do/say to them?’

The results of such an enquiry might get ugly, but we’ll be helping others get closer to their true feelings, rather than simply propping up a superiority complex. This is true empathy. Of course the extent to which one is able to conduct such deep, potentially ‘messy’ explorations on the company dime is another question.

5. “Don’t let it get to you”

Arguably, this is a variant of Michael’s “Look on the bright side” trap, but it has a distinctly different tone.

Dr Bosch describes this strategy as the Denial of Needs defence. When someone employs the Denial of Needs ploy, they use expressions such as ‘I’m fine. It’s OK. Really, I can deal with this’, when deep down they’re really hurting. They’re dissociating from their feelings.

When we encourage someone to let it go, we’re helping them to dissociate and again, we’re not empathising.

Being aware of these five empathy traps may help us to connect emotionally, but ultimately our ability to empathise is constrained by our ability to be emotionally present with the other person. I believe that that in turn is determined by the amount of pain that we ourselves our carrying. How we address that is another topic entirely…