Empathy is the Sacred Place

I didn’t really think about the concept of empathy until I began learning about Brene Brown. If you’re new here, Brene Brown, Ph.D., is a social worker, researcher, speaker, and writer. I am a bit obsessed with her and her work and spent 5 months with an exceptional life coach who utilized her coaching program - the Daring Way. If she is new to you, make sure you read Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. I’ve included a link to a great short video about empathy narrated by Brene in our resources (here is a link to that video), but it does a great job of describing empathy by contrasting it from sympathy. Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, described empathy as having four components:

  • Perspective taking
  • Staying out of judgment
  • Recognizing emotion in another person
  • Communicating that emotion

Empathy is about feeling with people. Does it mean you work to solve someone’s problems? No, quite the opposite. Empathy is about connecting to emotions and sitting in the cave with others to just be there for them. Brene says it fuels connection and is a sacred place.

Empathy is a friend saying “I am struggling with anxiety and unhappiness,” and you responded with “I am so sorry you are feeling that way, do you want to talk more about it.” While I can’t all of a sudden make that friend happy, I may be able to relieve some additional weight of that by being a listening ear.

Here at SBC, I care about helping people live their best lives - that includes their personal and professional relationships. Empathy is a skill that can do just those things.

The rub with empathy

According to an article from Entrepreneur.com, empathy can hamper diversity because it is a more natural choice to be empathetic to those who share similarities with us. The author says we unconsciously empathize with people who are similar to us. In the context of the work environment, it means we may hire and promote more people who are like us, and the assignments we assign may be different. Unconscious bias research supports this point.

That same article says empathy can be too narrow. We can only process so many emotions at once, so it is hard to be in the cave and be empathetic with more than one or two people at a time.

Another thing about empathy is that it is hard. Who wants to feel pain and heaviness? No one, but connecting with someone in an empathetic way means connecting to a potentially painful feeling in you in order to truly connect to that emotion. As you all know, I do a lot of work with underserved people. When I am being really empathetic with someone in my work, it’s heavy. I feel the weight of their less than enjoyable emotions about the status of their life. No one is running to feel that. It can also be exhausting. To really feel with people can take a lot of emotional energy and can leave one depleted.

Paul Bloom has written a book Against Empathy in his video about the book, he says empathy is a hard barometer for helping people. When we are empathetic, it can lead us to donate a little bit of money to a lot of organizations in an attempt to support them. Bloom argues that utilizing that strategy does not lead to effectively helping improve the lives of others.

So what is good about empathy?  

Now that I have told you all the bad things about empathy, let me tell you why I am such an advocate for empathy. I agree that empathy can hamper diversity, but we all have biases against certain groups that hamper diversity anyway. Instead of leaning away from empathy, we should be leaning into our bias in an attempt to celebrate diversity and inclusion - I’ve written about that here. Yeap, empathy is narrow and it is hard to be in the cave with more than one or two people at the same time, but should you be? I don’t think so. True empathy as defined above requires mindfulness - it requires us to be all in, in that moment, so I wouldn’t advocate for being down in the cave with too many people anyway. As I’ve already mentioned, empathy is hard, but does that mean you shouldn’t do it? Not in my opinion. It is hard to feel with people, it requires us to be vulnerable which is often challenging. The thing is, though, in order to build true, real, and meaningful connections with others, we’re going to have to get our hands dirty and get in that darn cave. Finally, can empathy impact our giving? Yes, it absolutely can and does. There are a few camps in terms of giving; some think one should give a lot of money to a few places, some think one should give a little money to a lot of places, but either way, the donor gets to choose what they do. I am not going to slap the hand of someone who wants to give their resources (financial or otherwise) to help others. The non-profit community can work to manage how to manage those trends in giving.

That same entrepreneur article I mentioned says that empathy increases life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, and self-esteem. Additionally, people with high empathy have larger social networks, more social outlets, volunteer more and donate more.

Daniel Goleman, the leading voice on emotional intelligence says empathy is a critical component of empathy. Furthermore, he advocates for leaders to be emotionally intelligent, so by default, leaders should be empathetic. As someone who is a student of leadership (both figuratively and literally), I have to agree with Daniel.

Here’s the bottom line. Our lives are often about interacting with people whether those are our colleagues, subordinates, significant others, children, the list goes on and on. Empathy improves relationships. Period. It just does. Because of that, I think all of us can work to be a little more empathetic with others.