The Empathy Switch: How to Turn It On When You Don’t Feel Like It.

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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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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