Monday, January 6, 2020

Is It Possible to Have Too Much Empathy?


I recently finished reading A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by by Edwin Friedman. The author shared a number of leadership insights that were helpful to me or at least pushed my thinking.

But one of his positions knocked me back just a little. He builds a case that supports personal responsibility and rails against empathy. I was nodding my head on the personal responsibility ideas but was somewhat puzzled by the anti-empathy ideas. 

Friedman sets forth that empathy is a force that results in a lack of proper relational boundaries. He says empathy deprives organizations of progress and shifts power to the least emotionally healthy members. He says that empathy enables poor behavior and results in a failure to expect the least emotionally healthy members of an organization, or family, or relationship to grow. 

Those all seemed like bold claims to me. I generally view empathy as a good thing, a really good thing. But as I studied his position more carefully and reflected on the many examples he provided, I could also relate to how empathy gone too far can result in enabling dynamics. 

Or, taking empathy too far might result in my sacrificing my principles, beliefs, or convictions to soothe or satisfy another person's emotions or ideas.

So how can we define and practice empathy in healthy ways? How can we keep empathy from going too far?

A healthy sort of empathy is about carefully understanding the perspective of another person. One of my favorite quotes is from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

Healthy empathy is about being open to another person's experience and perspective, to almost vicariously share in his or her perspective to understand it thoroughly. It's about understanding their thoughts and feelings.

But healthy empathy does not require you to agree with the position of another person, in matters of opinion. When I empathize, I can understand exactly where you're coming from and why you feel a certain way, and completely validate what you're experiencing, while also maintaining my ability to be true to myself, my ideals, and my responsibilities as a leader.

Friedman also provided an interesting distinction between hurt and harm, in matters of leadership interactions. He says that fair and effective leadership may sometimes result in hurt feelings. We're not going to like every decision the leader makes. And that our hurts are often an opportunity to grow emotionally through the experience. He would say that progress will demand some hurts along the way.

But harm crosses moral or ethical boundaries. Leaders should do no harm. They should be expected to act in ways that are honest, caring, selfless, and upright. 

The confusion I've noticed is that often when someone feels hurt, there is a belief that the individual or the organization has harmed them. But these are two different things.

What do you think? Is it possible to have too much empathy? What are your thoughts on keeping healthy boundaries while also showing empathy to others? Share a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post, David. I would agree that empathy has its limits. I think if a person is too empathetic, he/she loses the ability to lead because (as you suggest) the ideals of the leader takes a back seat to the feelings of others. Sometimes, that isn't sustainable. So, it's finding that mixture of caring for what others are seeing and also maintaining a clear vision. Many times, as long as others believe that you are trying to be empathetic, then they are willing to suffer through some hurt because they know that you have their best interests at heart.

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