Balancing true empathy
How often are we taught to walk in another’s shoes, to see things from the other person’s perspective? How often are we taught to always find the good in people? Worthy and noble intentions I’m sure you’d agree. On the most part, I second that opinion. To show true kindness and understanding is a wonderful way of living. Until that is, it’s followed as the only way to be or to succeed. Then we run the risk of damaging individuals and teams alike. “Really?” I hear “isn’t that a bit strong Mel?” Well yes, it is indeed a strong claim to make. And in both my opinion and experience, it’s absolutely true. One of those ‘hidden gremlins’ that can deliver the opposite result against the original intention. What follows is how I learned how to practice true empathy.
So to clarify, I have absolutely nothing against kindness, support and understanding of others. Quite the opposite in fact – I wear my heart on my sleeve and am regularly called “soft as shite” by my northern friends! Where I do have an issue though, is the way we’re consistently directed to flex our behaviour, check our values, and question our judgment in order to match the person or group of people in front of us. If we prioritise too much time and focus trying to empathise with what’s going on for other people – without first paying attention to our own feelings in the situation – we inadvertently put our judgment in jeopardy and we end up throwing true empathy out of the window.
Losing oneself rather than true empathy
Ask any counsellor or therapist, arguably the experts in true empathy. Too much time spent listening to and understanding other peoples’ map of the world can be debilitating. Unless we can also remain centred, present and in-tune with our own responses.
From my own experience, I became so finely tuned at sensing other people and group situations that I completely forgot about my own instincts. To the point where they became so unnoticed they almost shut down. Of course, I didn’t realize that at the time. But like any muscle, if you don’t use it you lose it! I’d stopped checking in with myself, preferring to put others first, and understand where they were coming from – and that was how I ultimately became the victim of long-term manipulation and betrayal.
True empathy always starts with self-understanding
So where am I going with all this? In a nutshell, I’m coming at this from two key angles:
1. Disconnected feelings
People who have been through any kind of trauma or invalidation are often less connected with their true feelings – and are possibly less equipped than those who are in tune with themselves to make healthy judgments. I know that became true in my case anyway! So if you equate that to the workplace, if there is a culture of fear (whether overt or underlying) coupled with the constant well-intentioned direction for employees to understand and fit in with the people and surroundings, people become more and more detached from what’s really going on for them. It eventually becomes easier to pay lip-service or just carry on regardless, rather than to stand up for what is important. And we wonder why people aren’t engaged?
2. Doubting instincts
People who regularly bully or belittle others will happily leap on the ‘empathy’ bandwagon at will – if confronted, they will plead that they’re misunderstood or that the victims have just read the situation wrong. That they’re somehow unskilled or incapable of compassion. Co-workers and bosses alike are left confused and doubting themselves as they do their best to ‘walk in the other person’s shoes’ and understand what happened. The bully will boldly saunter away with a smirk, while the rest of us are left asking ourselves what we did wrong, and what we can do differently to fix the situation.
Despite my personal experiences, I’m not suggesting that every workplace is littered with these kinds of controlling personalities. What I am saying though, loud and clear, is that if we don’t pay more attention to our own gut instincts, we will end up being led by the crowd, or worse, being deliberately deceived and will not practice true empathy.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
Remember “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Andersen? The leader had been led to believe what the so-called master weavers were telling him – nodding sagely along at their ridiculous charade of invisible clothing. In turn, his subjects were so conditioned to please their leader that they clapped along while he paraded around naked… until a little boy cried out “but he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
The child was speaking from natural instinct. He trusted what he saw. He had no reason to question the facts because he hadn’t yet been taught about understanding the other person’s actions first…. So he blurted out the obvious truth. An embarrassing reality that was then of course immediately acknowledged by everyone else – including the Emperor.
True empathy means staying connected to your own inner guidance
My call to action is this. To put our focus on teaching people to stay connected to their own inner guidance. To let them know that they’re already enough, support them to trust themselves, to know that true empathy starts with self-understanding – and to have the confidence to tell it like it is. If we don’t, we are encouraging naked kings and manipulative weavers to thrive in our workplace and in our life.
It’s time to make things personal.