I Don't Feel Your Pain: Overcoming Roadblocks to Empathy
Why empathy is important at home and at work, and how to be better at it.
Posted March 7, 2013 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
According to emotional intelligence author, Daniel Goleman, empathy is defined as (1) understanding the emotional makeup of people and (2) treating people according to their emotional reactions. Goleman and other emotional intelligence and workplace competency researchers have consistently identified empathy as a core component of emotional intelligence and a powerful predictor of success in many professions. Empathy helps us to develop deep levels of rapport and trust.
Having poor empathy skills can lead to serious consequences. It can lead to conflict born of misunderstanding. Without it we can feel lonely within a relationship. Lack of empathy can cause companies to make catastrophic blunders that alienate their customers or employees and it can even incite violence.
The Importance of Empathy
Recent research conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital has shown solid evidence that physician empathy plays an important role in forging strong patient-physician relationships and boosting patient satisfaction as well as patients having better treatment adherence and suffering from fewer major medical errors.
Empathy is also important in the workplace. A study conducted by the Center for Creatively Leadership investigated 6,731 leaders from 38 countries. Their results reveal that empathy is positively related to job performance. The study concluded that managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.
Our Brains on Empathy
Humans are wired to experience empathy, possibly via multiple systems of mirror neurons in our brains. These mirror neurons reflect back actions that we observe in others causing us to mimic that action in our own brains. When we observe someone in pain or when we are with someone happy, we experience that to a certain extent. These mirror neurons are the primary physiological basis of empathy. They create a neural Wi-Fi that connects us to the feelings of people around us.
Many people seem to be naturally empathetic. Others are not. The good news is that research shows that empathy can be learned. There are however a few potential roadblocks to empathy that must be overcome.
Overcoming Roadblocks to Empathy
Roadblock 1 - Not Paying Attention
Mirror neurons kick in strongest when we observe a person’s emotions. We see facial expressions, eye expressions, body position, and gestures. We may lack motivation to pay attention to a person or we may be too distracted by our own thoughts or by other things around us while we are multi-tasking.
The Solution: Motivate yourself to be more empathetic by knowing how important empathy is to success at home and work. Put your PDA and computer away and minimize distractions. Learn about and practice active listening.
Fine tune your nonverbal observation skills. Learn about micro-expressions (small quick facial expressions) and eye reading. Daniel Goleman in his book, Social Intelligence, states that “the more sharply attentive we are, the more keenly we will sense another person’s inner state.”
Watch TV with the volume down and practice your nonverbal interpretation by reading what each character is feeling and talking about. This is best done with subtle dramas, not action movies.
Roadblock 2 - Feeling the emotion of the other person but not knowing how or when to communicate empathetically.
The Solution: Increase your awareness about your own non-verbal expressions (eyes and micro-expressions). Notice what you are doing nonverbally when you are interacting with others. Ask people that you trust, to give you honest feedback about your non-verbal communication in various situations especially ones that are more emotional.
Notice with whom you have difficulty being empathetic. Examine why.
Learn more about voice tone. Listen to people who are known as empathetic leaders, teachers, friends, politicians, or even TV interviewers. Listen to how they use their voices to express empathy.
Try saying the sentence, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” several different ways with various voice tones. See if you can tell which sounds most empathetic or ask someone else to give you feedback.
Recognize that there are some situations where it may be counterproductive to respond empathetically, such as when a person is sending signals that they don’t want to interact with you or they don’t want to share with you how they are feeling.
Roadblock 3 - Not feeling the other person's emotion but knowing intellectually that you need to communicate empathetically. This is known as cognitive empathy.
The Solution: Know that you can disagree with someone and still understand what they may be feeling and why. This is especially important when someone is having a strong emotion and is asking you to do something that you can’t do.
Sometimes just listening without judgment is enough to convey cognitive empathy. Communicate to the person in an authentic way that you understand what they are experiencing.
Can you fake being empathetic?
Sometimes it may be necessary to act empathetically to achieve a desired outcome even when you feel antagonistic to a person. I have trained hostage negotiators for many years. Hostage negotiators are trained to act empathetically toward the hostage taker in order to establish the rapport necessary to influence him to safely surrender.
In fact, the negotiator most likely despises a person that would hold a woman and baby as hostages. What is interesting is that after a couple of hours many negotiators actually start to feel some empathy toward the hostage taker as a result of “acting” empathetic. Most of us will never find ourselves in that position, but you may need to fake empathy to influence someone to an important end. Hopefully, you won't experience that frequently, because there is often a price to pay for being consistently inauthentic.
Empathy is one of the building blocks of social intelligence. Stress, self-absorption, and lack of time can gang up on empathy to kill it. Knowing what your empathy roadblocks are and exploring ways to overcome them can help you develop a tool that is vital to your success at home and work.
Do you believe people can increase their ability to be empathetic?
Have you increased your empathy skills or helped others to do it? How?
What impact do you believe empathy plays in the workplace?
Do you think some people are too empathetic?
I’d love to hear your comments.