During my research and work on empathy with individuals, teams, and organisations, I witness a common mistake. When I point out this error a eureka expression appears on the face in front of me. It suddenly seems obvious, yet the trap is easy to fall into, and the danger of doing so is perhaps exacerbated by our haste to understand another human being’s situation.
Empathy has so much to offer us in our personal and professional endeavours. It empowers us with insight, allowing us to make better-informed decisions. All the more important, then, that we empathise as wisely and accurately as possible.
Avoiding the Trap
Impelled by the regular description of empathy, “to walk in someone else’s shoes," the temptation is to throw oneself into those shoes, and from that perspective consider what we feel, need, and think. But this is a trap. Rather than become empowered by drawing accurate knowledge from the experience, this action leads us to misinformation. We dupe ourselves and it sends us off in the wrong direction.
To empathise accurately we need not only to slip into the shoes of the target of our empathy, but to become that person in the moment. This enables us to understand what the other is experiencing, rather than what we would be experiencing if we were in the same situation. These two perspectives are very different.
Our empathic accuracy (Ickes, 1993) can be improved with knowledge of the other. The deeper and more detailed this knowledge is, the closer we can become to becoming the other, as we walk in their shoes. This is why we can empathise more accurately with family members or close friends. Sometimes the phrase associated with empathy is “to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes." A mile might be enough to gain more empathic accuracy, but it is still not enough if it is the empathiser doing the walking.
Why Fool’s Empathy?
The label may seem harsh, understanding what a common mistake this is. However, the term needs to be memorable if it is to prevent us from falling into the trap and remind us how to empathise as accurately as we possibly can. Therefore, I suggest Fool’s Empathy.
Fool’s Empathy does offer the empathiser a fresh perspective and so may not be considered a complete waste of time. Any perspective-taking activity can be good practice and potentially help broaden our knowledge. However, Fool’s Empathy inhibits empathic accuracy, and so has the potential to do more harm than good.
I hope that this explanation will elicit a greater understanding of the truest meaning of empathy, and the best way to practice it. By becoming the other, we increase our empathic accuracy, and this allows us to profit more from empathy, individually, in teams, in families, and across society.
My intention is always to spread empathy as much as possible because it not only informs decision-making and performance, it tends to lead to more pro-social and compassionate behaviour (Batson, 1991). Like most things, when it comes to empathy, quality is more important than quantity. So, now that you are aware of the trap that is Fool’s Empathy, empathise with wisdom and reap the rewards.
Batson, C. D. (1991). The Altruism Question : toward a social psychological answer. Retrieved from http://lbprimo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dis…
Ickes, W. (1993). Empathic Accuracy. Journal of Personality, 61(4), 587–610. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1993.tb00783.x