What makes our empathy wane and what to do about it.
In last week’s blog, we discussed how emotions can switch off our empathy for people around us, causing us to say or do things that go against our values and beliefs. We may do things like yell at a customer service rep when mad about our stolen credit card, curse at the umpire or pitcher when angry at ourselves for striking out, or neglect to stop to help someone when feeling rushed and late for a meeting. In these moments, we operate as though we are the only important player. Anyone else in front of us is to be blamed or ignored because we’re in a self-involved state of mind. You don’t matter. Only I matter right now.
Martin Buber, the philosopher and author of Ich and Du (I and You), describes this type of interaction between people as an “I-It” interaction. Whether briefly due to a mood, or intentionally due to a belief system, one person treats the other person as an object, something to be ignored (not seen), used, blamed or attacked. Through an “I-It” lens, our state of mind makes us more likely to engage in words or actions ranging from inconsiderate to harmful.
Empathy, on the other hand, is an “I-You” state of mind. Empathic thinking sounds like this, “If I do __, it will affect you in __ way.” You matter just as much as I matter. I notice how you feel and I care to do something helpful. Without empathy we erode our connections and relationships. With empathy we address each other’s pain, resolve conflicts, and build a feeling of community. Empathy is our North Star when our state of mind erodes our connection to others.
Here are the strategies that will help you switch your empathy back on when emotions or thoughts start to dim your regard for the person next to you.
World of Your Own Empathy Erosion: Strong emotions like stress, anger, or anxiety consume us. To avoid going blind or numb to people, here’s what you can do:
Strategy 1: Observe the ripple effect from your emotions. We all react differently when our emotions overwhelm us. Some people clam up in response, while others lash out. Some people work tirelessly toward fixing their problem, while others take time to reflect. Whatever the tendency, it has the potential to hijack our empathy if we’re unaware. Learning tendencies is the first step toward managing them (i.e., people who clam up may need to learn to force themselves to speak, and people who lash out may need to learn to breathe for ten seconds and give over the floor to other people.)
Strategy 2: Cut “catch phrase empathy.” “Maybe it’s better this way” and “At least it wasn’t worse” are little more than catch phrases used to avoid real acknowledgement. Under a veil of “well-wishing,” catch phrases are an example of how world of your own empathy erosion can become a workplace norm. Instead of using catch phrases as a crutch, try to be present, listen deeply, and thank them for sharing something so important.
Strategy 3: Note your circumstance. Just as our natural tendencies can cause us to treat someone badly, so too can our circumstances. One common example of this is being in a position of power, which studies show lessens our ability to empathize with others. Similarly, alcohol not only makes us less empathetic, but also makes our empathy less accurate.
Corrosive Emotions: Corrosive emotions like contempt and disgust seep into our thoughts over time. To avoid letting these emotions toward a person dictate your actions, here’s what you can do.
Strategy 1: Walk in their shoes. At its simplest this strategy can mean envisioning how someone we hold strong feelings against goes through their day or their life. At its most challenging this can be like George Orwell who intentionally lived homeless to learn what it felt like before writing his experience in the memoir Down and out in Paris and London. The most efficient way to step into someone’s shoes is usually something between the two extremes: long conversations. Stories of a person’s life help us to piece together who they are, what they feel, and why they act the way they do.
Strategy 2: Be open and vulnerable. To flip a negative relationship on its head, try flipping the entire approach. The last person we typically open up to is the person we dislike, but when we do, it can be surprising how they react. While we may fear that radical vulnerability and openness will make us look weak and inadequate, studies show that people actually see vulnerability as “desirable” and “good.” Vulnerability breaks down the “I-It” perspective by forcing us to communicate on a human-to-human level.
Strategy 3: Intentionally empathize with enemies. “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” -Abraham Lincoln
By seeking out the people we harbor long-term negative emotions toward and getting to know them better, we can proactively break down those long-term emotions like contempt and disgust. One profound example of someone who mastered this is Daryl Davis, a Black blues musician who has intentionally been attending KKK meetings for thirty years. He spends his time befriending members and has personally convinced over 200 members to resign. He’s done this by sitting down to have dinner with individual Klan members and having deep conversations with them.
From Insights to Action. In a Princeton study, Betsy Levy Paluck successfully led anti-bullying campaigns at middle schools. To accomplish this, she and her colleagues found that the most successful approach was to assign specific students to hold their peers accountable for bullying. The reason this worked so well is that groups operate first and foremost on norms. When we see other people act in a certain way, we’re much more likely to follow their lead than we are if, for instance, a principal walks around threatening punishment for bullying. By modeling empathy and practicing mindful empathy strategies, each of us can begin to successfully shift old team norms and mold organization cultures the same way individual kids were able to successfully reduce bullying at their schools.
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