The Art of Nurturing and Balancing Empathy

I was in the middle of an urgent task to revert the answer to a client. She needed to send this email campaign within the day, but for some reasons, it got stuck for so long, she didn’t even know if the campaign got sent, and if it didn’t, her marketing was ruined. She would need to change the entire dates and times within the EDM.

I checked with the engineering team, what was the problem? Could anyone take some time to look into this issue with me? They all got called into a high-priority special project with the Product Lead – a new product that needed to be delivered by end of week, and the company needed all hands on deck.

Both situations stressed me out.

On one hand, I felt worried as if I was the marketer who had a stuck campaign that could not go out in time, and my boss would be so pissed off about a failed marketing plan. Understanding her situation, I must do something to ensure the campaign could be sent and the client fulfill her duties no matter what.

On another, I was the restless engineer guy who was in that task force, who knew in the back of his mind the long list of backlog that he had no time to deal with, due to circumstances. I felt bad for the guy, I also wanted to cut him some slack and not rush him to try to help me out with my client.

Sound familiar?

Not so much to many. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel their emotions, is not something everyone was born with. Some have it, some develop it along the way, some never have it in them. It’s empathy.

What good does it do?

What is the meaning of Empathy?

Empathy means the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling.

What are the three types of empathy?

  • Affective empathy: the ability to understand another person’s emotions and respond appropriately. Such emotional understanding helps you to feel concerned for another person’s well-being.
  • Somatic empathy is a sort of physical reaction in response to what someone else is experiencing. People sometimes physically experience what another person is feeling. When you see someone else feeling embarrassed, for example, you might start to blush or have an upset stomach. When you see someone else crying, you may feel an overwhelming sadness, and might cry.
  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another person’s mental state and what they might be thinking in response to the situation. This is related to what psychologists refer to as theory of mind, or thinking about what other people are thinking.

Where does empathy come from?

There have been a number of researches, studies to find out more about this trait. Were you born with this as a genetic trait, or would the environment shape how to react and respond in an empathetic way?

In a study done in 2016 about how heritable is empathy, the researchers investigated the heritability of empathy using an extended twin design, using different measuring methods on 742 twins and adult siblings. They found that for affective empathy heritability estimates between 52 and 57 %. For cognitive empathy, genetic variance was smaller (27 %), indicating that the heritability of empathy depends on the measured subcomponent, which could be relevant for intervention programs like empathy or compassion training.

In layman’s terms, if there were 100 people that have the traits of empathy, 52-57 of them would demonstrate affective empathythe ability of feeling concerned for others, caring for others’ well-being, genetically. Yet, only 27 of them, genetically, would be able to truly understand what others might be thinking and feeling, as if they are the ones in that position, without any learning experiences or environmental influence.

So what does these numbers tell us?

It tells us, that empathy can be learned if you feel that you are lacking in that aspect. It can be improved, if you think it will help you handle better certain situations that involve relationships with other people. And, it can even be balanced, if you, like me, find it difficult to adjust our empathy so that it doesn’t drain out our energy and respond to situations better.

Brené Brown quotes about empathy

Empathy vs Sympathy

Many think empathy and sympathy is the same. Yet, there are vast differences in these two terms.

Both of the words deal with the relationship a person has to the feelings and experiences of another person. Both sympathy and empathy have roots in the Greek term páthos meaning “suffering, feeling.”

Sympathy has existed for a longer time. It appeared in English in the mid-1500s with a very broad meaning of “agreement or harmony in qualities between things or people.” In modern times, sympathy is used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone else who is experiencing misfortune. You feel for them, but you don’t know what to do and how that person would feel.

Empathy appeared a few centuries after sympathy—in the late 1800s—with a somewhat technical and now obsolete meaning from the field of psychology. Psychologists began using empathy as a translation for the German term Einfühlung , with regards to the concept that a person could project their own feelings onto a viewed object. Now, empathy has come to be used in a broader way than it was when it was first introduced. The term is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

To have a better understanding of how these two terms are different from each other, watch a 2 minutes short video. In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr. Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.

Empathy rarely starts with the words, “At least…”.
The best response is, “I don’t know what to say, but I am really glad you told me.”

The lack of Empathy

What would be like when there is a lack of empathy? More than just not understanding, you can’t resonate to how the others must have felt. There are a few types of behaviors when people who lack empathy may demonstrate.

Cognitive Biases

Cognitive bias is rooted in thought processing errors often arising from problems with memory, attention, attribution, and other mental mistakes. A person with cognitive bias, rarely sees the world outside of their own, they normally blame outside factors when things don’t go their way and they assume everyone shares the same beliefs or opinions. This results in poor judgement and makes it difficult to see all the factors that contribute to a situation or be able to see a situation from the perspective of another.

Dehumanization

Dehumanization is the ability to see fellow men and women as less than human. It involves redefining the targets of prejudice and violence by making them seem less human (i.e, less civilized or less sentient) than other people, or ourselves. Many people with these personality disorders cannot appreciate that other people have inner lives like their own with different sets of beliefs, traditions, cultures… This  leads some people to tend to accept or even engage in behaviors that they know are wrong to others, simply because “those are not as humans as me/us”.

Victim Blaming

Victim blaming is the act of trying to taint and diminish the target of the violence, instead of focusing on the victims as the actual source of wrong-doing. One of the biggest factors that promotes victim-blaming is something called the just world hypothesis,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at the University of the South and founding editor of the APA’s Psychology of Violence journal. It’s the idea that people deserve what happens to them because the world is a fair, just place; and therefore, instead of empathizing with the ordeals they have gone through, victims of crimes are often asked what they might have done differently to prevent the crime.

I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.

Gustave Mark Gilbert – American psychologist

The Art of Nurturing and Balancing Empathy

To avoid falling into the trap of cognitive bias, the mindset of dehumanization and victim blaming, developing, nurturing and balancing your empathy are encouraged.

Some associate having empathetic behaviors such as knowing how to put yourself in other’s shoes or to be able to understand and respond to others’ feeling and emotions, contributing to a high Emotional Intelligence.

Studies suggest that, besides increasing kind and helpful behavior and making the world a better place to live, empathy contributes to our relationships and career success.

Tips to expand your empathy skill

For a beginner who would like to enhance the skill, you can consider some of the following:

  • Stay open-minded to all sides of a conversation: practice effective listening and refrain from giving opinions, except for when being asked
  • Notice when someone doesn’t react emotionally the same way you would and stay curious, seeing if you can see it from their point of view.
  • Observe and adopt a genuine attitude of curiosity and interest in the emotions of others. Reflect on and write about what emotions someone is likely to have had in certain situations. The more we can determine what another person’s needs are by watching and by asking, the better position we will be in to help them. The more help we provide, the better ally they will be and the more willing to reciprocate.
  • As you identify a word or phrase that describes the emotion another person is showing, try to reflect on an experience you have had that produced a similar emotion in you. Learn to put an emotional label on this. While not everyone experiences exactly the same emotions in a particular situation, chances are good that the other person had similar feelings.

Nurture your Empathy in relationships

Sometimes we get wrapped up in our lives and simply forget empathetic practices. Some of the practices you can use to help nurturing the empathy in you and strengthening your relationships:

  • Be self-aware. The more open you are to your own emotions, the more easily you will be attuned to the emotions and feelings of others.
  • Observe body language. Often we can tell a lot by watching other people’s body language or non-verbal cues. Watch for facial expressions, hand motions, gestures and tone of voice.
  • Be a good listener. To be empathetic you have to really hear what the other person is telling you. To develop empathy, it’s important to have all the details. Give the other person a chance to express themselves and refrain from interrupting.
  • Suspend judgement and disbelief. While listening is key to developing empathy, it’s also important not to judge what the person is telling you. It’s important not to offer tips or suggestions. If you’re thinking about fixing the problem, you’re not in tuned to what they’re going through. Being there for them is a better approach because it tells them that they are not alone in their emotional battle.
  • Use reflection. If what is being shared is something difficult for you to hear, paraphrasing and restating both the feelings and words of the speaker, to allow the speaker to ‘hear’ their own thoughts and encourage them to continue talking.
  • Put aside your own views and values. It’s important to do this so that you’re completely focused on the other person’s needs.

Balance your Empathy at work

The downside or the limits of empathy, happens when you regularly put the feelings and perspectives of others above your own. You may experience feelings of emptiness or alienation and develop generalized anxiety or low-level depression. It’s exhausting when you keep putting yourself into others’s shoes and you put the burdens onto yourself – this depletes your mental resources, and takes a toll on your own mental well-being.

This rings true for social communications but it’s especially important at work, due to the more obligations, sense of responsibilities, empathy you express for all the people you work for, work with and the external stakeholders you support, the worse you’d feel if you always strive to understand and put yourself in others’ shoes. Sometimes your good intentions backfire, as being too empathic may cause you your work results and progress.

You can counter such excessive empathy by using the following techniques:

  • Promoting Teamwork by splitting the work: Empathy at work means understanding that not one person can do their job, without the help of other supporting roles at work – this applies to you as well. Reach out to your colleagues and even managers and let them know the situation you are in, leveraging on the “greater good” – customer satisfaction, company reputation… so that you don’t have to bear the entire work responsibilities on your shoulders.
  • Ask more Questions: Asking questions is important, because it shows you’re interested in others’ perspectives. Whether it’s your coworker, your manager, or your employee, take time to ask how they’re doing, how they’re feeling about their workload, or what they think about an upcoming project or the obstacles they are having. This way, not only are you are aware of their situations to offer help and support, you can start planning for alternatives in advance and save yourself from stress.
  • Set Healthy Boundaries: due to your natural empathy, you may find it hard to say “no.” This can lead to problems as you over-commit and drain yourself emotionally. Control how much time you spend listening to stressful people, or trying hard to help to solve issues that are beyond your control, and learn to say ‘no.’ Set clear limits, boundaries and expectations with people will help them understand where the line is drawn. This helps you not to be burdened too much from work-related matters that you forget about other aspects in life that hold the same level of importance – family, lovers, closed friends.

Want to know your level of empathy? Take a quick Empathy Quiz to learn about your Empathy Score and how to develop it even further.

Reference & further reading

3 Thoughts

  1. This has to be the most detailed article on empathy I have ever seen! Very well written in detail. I consider myself as an empath, but didn’t know the different types of empathy. I think I may be both affective and somatic. I appreciate your knowledge on this. Grateful for this article, and glad I stumbled upon it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Perspective Muse! Glad you enjoy the post!!
      As any Empath, there will be days you feel drained and overwhelmed. So remember to take care of yourself, have good rest and time for yourself daily too! Here is a virtual hug!

      Liked by 1 person

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