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Can You Coach Empathy? (Part 1)

January 18, 2018

Bill thinks he’s empathetic. He doesn’t show up to coaching sessions asking for coaching on empathy. Lack of empathy didn’t show up in Bill’s 360. Awesome, right? Not if you talk to his direct reports.

Bill’s direct reports frequently describe in their coaching sessions with me how they go to Bill with concerns (too much work, not enough authority, not enough resources) or possibilities (a desire for more professional development, more staff, new title) and Bill responds with, “Do your job. Do it better. Figure it out. We don’t have more resources.” His direct reports leave the meeting – which was for them, a tough conversation with their boss – feeling deflated.

So this raises two questions – at least two. “Can you coach empathy?” And, if so, “Can you coach empathy in someone who isn’t asking for it?” In this blog post, and in the next one, I hope to answer these questions. The short answers are “Yes” and “Yes.”

What is empathy?

Empathy is defined in different ways by different people. We at Learning in Action disaggregate empathy into its component parts, differentiate it from sympathy, and define it this way:

  • Empathy Accuracy = Knowing and cognitively understanding what another is thinking, feeling, intending.
  • Empathy Compassion = Caring and sharing in the feeling, thinking, and intending of another.
  • Sympathy = Knowing / Understanding / Caring what someone else is feeling, without joining in it with them. Caring without connecting. Caring, from a distance.

In short, empathy (accuracy + compassion) is what allows us humans to communicate, connect and relate with other humans. We humans have been neurobiologically designed to connect with each other through empathy.

What’s the business case for empathy?

Why should Bill care about whether he’s empathetic or not? Why is coaching Bill to be more empathetic implied in our coaching plan? Because empathy positively impacts outcomes.

The research on empathy and its impact on performance and outcomes are compelling:

The impact of empathy on performance is staggering. But why? How does someone like Bill make sense of that?

Simply put, a leader is only a leader if people follow. And people want to follow someone whom they feel understands them, cares about them, and connects with them.  

To move an agenda, a plan, a business, forward, Bill can choose to transact with his employees or he can choose to relate to them. The leaders who get the best outcomes choose to relate – using empathy.

When a leader chooses to transact (engage with others without feeling, without caring), he/she may get the task done, but that’s all. And the next day, they are back where they started. Or if they ticked off the people they rely on to get things done, the next day, they start behind the eight ball with a tougher task ahead. 

When a leader chooses to relate with others they work with, he/she does that through empathy, through shared thinking and feeling. They still get the task done, and yes, it might take slightly longer. But with that, they’ll have built a joint empathetic bank account with the people they work with, that can make everything that comes after, easier. 

Empathy has the effect of greasing the skids, making future engagement with others more frictionless, enjoyable, comfortable. As the research proves, empathy can actually allow us to get more done faster! 

As you can see, the business case for empathy (backed by research) is pretty dang convincing, no matter how you look at it. So, if being empathetic is so obviously correlated with strong performance and outcomes of all kinds, what keeps leaders from being empathetic?

What makes being empathetic so hard?

Being empathetic can be challenging for some people, all of the time, and for all people, at least some of the time. Here are a few examples of what can block or inhibit empathetic engagement:

  • Bad Listening Habits – For many, listening is synonymous with preparing to speak. Others listen with their eyes, but their mind is somewhere else. When our listening is more like waiting than attuning, we don’t connect with the other person and what they are saying. Empathetic listening is about tuning into what another is thinking, wanting, feeling, as well as saying. Empathy requires presence and attendance to the whole of the other person. When we don’t listen fully, we don’t connect.

  • Being Uncomfortable with Emotion – Being present and fully empathetic, without trying to fix a situation, can be distressing and uncomfortable for some. Being empathetic means being with the feelings of another without trying to change the person, their feelings, or the situation. That discomfort of being with the person and their feelings can cause some to try to fix the situation or change the feelings of the person. That can lead to saying all kinds of unempathetic things: “It’ll be fine.” “It could be worse.” “What does not kill us makes us stronger.” “Look for the silver lining.” “You should have ____.” “I would have ____”. “You should ____”. “Have you thought about ___?” All of these phrases end up creating distance versus connection.

  • Having a Conflicting Agenda – In a work environment, everyone pretty much has an agenda (not an evil agenda, just an agenda), an agenda set by the company. Sometimes it can feel like empathy and moving the agenda forward are in opposition. Here are examples of cases when empathy can be challenged by an agenda:

    • You are Betty’s boss. Betty’s working on a critical, time-sensitive project, due today, and calls in with a sick child. Part of you wants to support Betty, part of you is terror struck and frustrated about what’s going to happen with the project. It may be hard to be present and empathetic with Betty when your own distressing feelings arise.
    • You are Carl’s boss. Carl says that he doesn’t like the project he’s on, that it sucks his energy, but there’s no one else to do the job. You want Carl to be happy, but what choice is there? You feel stuck. You find it hard to both empathize with Carl and not change anything.
    • You are Jim’s peer. You are on a project with Jim and he’s consistently late delivering his part because he’s secretly working two jobs to make ends meet. His performance is making you look bad. You want Jim to be able to take care of himself, and you don’t want to have his non-performance reflect on you. Empathizing can feel like condoning what he’s doing.

All of these situations can create inner conflicts that make feeling empathetic a choice between     the other person and yourself.

  • Being in Conflict – Many people consider themselves to be empathetic. They may be, except when they are in conflict. It can be hard to be both in conflict with and empathetic toward another. Our instrument, the EQ Profile, measures one’s Empathy Accuracy and Empathy Compassion while in an interpersonal conflict. We’ve learned that one’s ability to empathize with someone in conflict can be challenged by their own distressing feelings, defenses, perspective, and desire to self-sooth. For these reasons, many find it challenging to empathize and connect with others when in conflict with them (which paradoxically, is when it’s needed most!).

  • Conflating Empathy with Agreement – Some leaders don’t want to be empathetic because they believe that empathy will be taken as agreement. As mentioned in Having a Conflicting Agenda (above), they don’t want to lose their position relative to their agenda by seeming to agree with the other person. Empathy is not agreement. Empathy is connecting with the feeling, thinking and wanting of another. When we connect with others through empathy, they drop their resistance. They feel felt, understood, seen. They no longer need to put up a fight. Only when we connect, and others drop their resistance, are we able to begin to move forward, together.
  • Empathetic Distress – Studies have found that professional caregivers can suffer from Empathetic Distress Fatigue, ostensibly as the result of empathetic burnout due to being placed repeatedly in emotionally demanding situations. High stakes, high emotion settings can be emotionally depleting. If we don’t continually refill our joy buckets, we can become empathetically fatigued making it difficult to stay connected with others.

  • Low Joy Bucket – Regardless of our profession, a low joy bucket can make us less empathetic. We at Learning in Action have collected data from thousands of people over the last 15 years and have found a direct and positive correlation between joy and empathy. People with higher levels of joy (and love and positivity and connectedness) experience higher levels of both empathy accuracy and empathy compassion. People with low joy, who are emotionally and relationally depleted, experience lower levels of empathy accuracy and compassion, particularly under stress. When we don’t consistently attend to our own self-care, keeping our joy bucket full, it can be challenging to stay present and connected with others.
  • Social Class – Studies have found that people of a higher social class experience lower levels of empathy. The higher the social class, the more likely an individual is to believe in what’s called the Just World Theory, interpreted loosely to mean ‘people get what they deserve.’ So, under this theory, when something bad happens to someone, it’s because they deserved it. Not much room for empathy there.

  • Pleasantly In the Dark – Just as with Bill, some people simply don’t know they aren’t being empathetic. And they don’t know because they aren’t being told. Am I going to, somehow in a crafty, coachy way, intimate to Bill’s direct reports that they tell him he’s not being empathetic. NO! (For a myriad of reasons.) I will, however, support and encourage them to speak their truth to Bill and tell him what they want from him to be more effective. Not speaking truth to power keeps the powerful blind and disconnected. (See Part 2 for how I plan to coach Bill) 
  • Prejudice / Othering – Numerous studies have examined the impact of racial, and other human differences on empathy. The bottom line of many of these studies is that we tend to be more empathetic with people who are more like us. Prejudice, judgment, bigotry, misogyny, racism, all types of othering, disconnect us from others. They are blockers to empathy.

  • Neurological Differences – Some people with certain neurological differences can have difficulty experiencing empathy. Neurological differences can result in one’s inability to develop what’s called Theory of Mind. In essence, Theory of Mind (ToM) reflects one’s ability to recognize that other people have different feelings and thoughts than you do. Neurotypical children begin demonstrating ToM as toddlers or preschoolers. (There is some evidence to indicate that it can be developed in even younger, pre-verbal children.) Empathy requires an understanding that others are having a different experience than you are. People without a fully developed ToM can find it challenging to connect with others empathetically.

  • Youth / Inexperience – An analysis of our own data measuring empathy indicates that empathy is lower in youth and increases with age. Perhaps as we experience more distress, more loss as we age, we are better able to empathize with others. Relative inexperience with physical, social, emotional pain can make one less empathetic and make it hard to relate to the struggles of others.

  • Not Caring – It’s tough to empathize with someone when we simply don’t care. Typically, if we don’t care, it’s reflective of one or more of the above obstacles.

Where to start?

If you have a client who wants to be a better leader, wants better relationships with peers, subordinates, their boss, or wants to perform better, consider sharing this article as a conversation starter. Ask them about their understanding of what empathy is and how it can be used in the workplace. Then ask them what could get in the way of their being as empathetic as they might like. Last, watch for part two of this blog for Exercises to Increase Empathy.


Posted in: Coaching|Emotional Intelligence

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