Two Important Ways Emotions Can Erode Empathy

Empathy is so essential to how we interact as people that even brief lapses can be hurtful to the people we work with and live with in our communities. Last year one of our training participants shared an all too familiar hectic workday story that illustrates what we mean by a brief lapse of empathy.

Liam (at least that’s what we’ll call him), woke up to an emergency call from the office in another time zone about an upset client. He didn’t have time for breakfast and boarded the train at six thirty still preoccupied on his phone. He sat down in the last available seat. An elderly man carrying a cane boarded the train just after Liam and had to stand right beside Liam’s seat. Liam noticed but didn’t offer his seat, too engrossed in his conversation about mitigating the crisis. At the next stop, the elderly man lost his grip on the pole and would have fallen if not for a woman nearby who caught him.

Liam received several pointed glares and turned bright red seeing this play out. Now he felt completely guilty. His inconsiderate state of mind almost caused a serious accident. He knew he could have taken his call standing up, but in the moment, he chose not to. He had acted as an uncivil stranger rather than the civil commuter he liked to think he was, and it was too late now to correct himself. Why did he do that?

Liam’s example is something we can all admit to at times. His feeling of being rushed and work-absorbed temporarily eroded his empathy. According to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen in his book The Science of Evil, empathy requires us to “suspend our single-minded focus of attention and adopt a double-minded focus of attention” to include our own feelings and interests as well as those of the people around us. Both recognition and response are needed to be empathetic. Baron-Cohen goes further to say that mild empathy erosion can lead to cruelty when people turn other people into objects in their mind.He explains that this objectification of any person is one of the most hurtful things we can do to another human being, to ignore their thoughts, needs, and feelings.

Emotions can erode our empathy to both a mild and a severe extent:

  1. In a World Of Your Own State of Mind

Instead of seeing the elderly man as a person who needed the seat more than he did, Liam saw a distraction from his priority—to solve his client emergency. Liam was completely absorbed in his own world, and his goal took precedence over the people around him. Other examples of “world of your own state of mind” include yelling at a telemarketer on the phone for interrupting your dinner, flipping off another driver for a mistake, or yelling at a colleague for messing up and making you miss your kid’s soccer game. Most often, this first type of empathy erosion is a moment’s deviation, the result of temporary anger toward or attention away from someone getting in the way of your goal.

2. Corrosive Emotions

The second kind of empathy erosion builds over a period of time and is the result of corrosive emotions like bitter resentment, contempt, and disgust. Dr. David Motsumoto a researcher of emotions from San Francisco State University warns us of the volatile combination of contempt “an emotion of superiority” and disgust, “an emotion of contamination.” These emotions, and the attitudes they feed, erode empathy levels to zero. If ignored and unmanaged, they create the mindset and conditions for treating someone as an object to harm, hold back, use for personal gain, or make unhappy. An example in the workplace could be a boss who intentionally excludes a capable employee from opportunities out of personal detest or jealousy, or a competitive coworker trying to make their rival look bad for personal gain.

From Insights to Action. It’s important to understand the potential we all have for acts of short-term and long-term cruelty. We are human and the emotional center in each of our brains works similarly.By discovering that your frame of mind and negative emotions can derail your empathy for people around you, you can begin to watch yourself and work to take proactive steps to avoid empathy erosion. You can also recognize when someone else is in a world of their own, so you can steer clear, defend yourself, or step in to protect another in their path.

Tune in next week for the second article in TalentSmart’s series on empathy. Next week we cover emotional intelligence (EQ) strategies for acting more empathetically.

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