This article follows on from What Most Leaders Are Getting Wrong About Empathy, And Why That’s Dangerous In Times Of Change: Part 1

How To Stop Empathy From Destroying Organizations And Families

As our organizations evolve into the 21st Century, where we move away from the bureaucratic kind of organizing towards more networked systems, and where we rely on working together to solve complex issues, we need to up our game in how we organize our relationships.

Empathy is commonly thought of as a vital and necessary thing in a human being, and essential in leadership. The problem is that the common understanding of empathy is incomplete.

A new world needs new leadership skills

According to organizational development thought leader Dr. Gervase Bushe, developer of the Clear Leadership approach to collaboration and working in partnership, the changes in the world we are currently going through are just as profound as the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution created its own forms of organizing and leadership. The transformation we are currently going through will require new forms of both.

The new kind of organizing is more about networks and people working together to solve more complex issues. This means that interpersonal relationships are in more focus than ever before.

One characteristic that is commonly expected from leaders is empathy. But unfortunately, what’s commonly considered as empathy is actually pseudo-empathy, leading to dysfunctional behavior and anxiety.

When I run leadership trainings, on average 25% of the managers turn to me after the training with questions about how to apply the same principles at home with their family.

As partnerships between people in essence are the same – no matter where they take place, at work or at home – what we are talking about in this article is universally applicable to all partnerships and interactions with other people.

What’s wrong with being empathic?

Nothing. But, as always, the devil is in the detail.

First, let me tell you a story to better illustrate what I am trying to explain:

It was spring in Estonia and it was one of the first sunny days after a long dark winter period. I went to the swimming pool with my kids (3 and 5 at the time) and after swimming it was still so warm and sunny outside that we decided to buy ice-creams.

So, we went to the store and agreed beforehand that we will buy ice-creams and we will open them when we get back to the car. My youngest son has always been kind of a Houdini. He always manages to fly below the radar and do his own thing regardless of what has been agreed or told. So obviously, it happened again.

I was still at the cashier counter, when suddenly the whole supermarket was taken over by my son’s crying. He had managed to quickly open the ice-cream and drop it on the ground right there before the cashiers’ counters. What surprised me was not my son’s behavior, but the reactions of people around us.

As it was the first warm and sunny day of that spring, people in the store were really in a good mood. People where smiling, their shopping carts were filled with barbecue supplies and beer and you could really see that they are just a few minutes away from having a nice barbecue party with friends and families. So, everything was excellent! But something happened – a little boy started to cry over a dropped ice-cream.

At that moment I saw three kind of behaviours from people around me: some people started to choose the exit further away from us, some people speeded up their step and almost ran through us toward the exit – just to get away very quickly – and some people tried to interfere to the situation and told me things like ‘You are such a tough parent’ or ‘Poor little guy, why don’t you buy him a new ice-cream’.

Imagine for a moment you are one of these people. What’s going on in here is that someone else is doing something that’s causing you to feel anxious. You might not even be aware of your anxiety at that moment, but you just don’t feel good. And in this moment, you are reacting to your inner feeling by trying to change something that’s going on around you so that you can feel OK again.

And this is when something that appears to be empathy, or caring,  or looking after someone else, is really not about the other person. It’s really about you at that point: about how you are experiencing the moment, what’s causing you distress, and you wanting to change what’s going on around you, so you can feel OK again.

True empathy asks “What’s best?”

According to learning psychology, the most effective parenting is to work with natural consequences. So, if a child drops their ice-cream, the natural consequence is that they don’t have ice-cream anymore. If parents intervene and take away the natural consequences of the child’s behavior, they are taking away the possibility for their child to learn from this situation. Otherwise, the child will learn that “if I screw up, someone else is going to fix it”. Probably that is not the lesson you want your children to learn.

So as a parent, and also as a leader, I need to consciously think through the implications of my actions from this point of view: what’s best for my child (or my employee)? It might be that I come to the conclusion that it has been a tough day and I am going to buy my child another ice-cream. Or I might think that the child needs to learn to take care of his things and when he dropped the ice-cream, it’s an opportunity to learn about natural consequences.

So, it is always a choice. But the choice should be made thinking about what’s best for the child (or employee). What typically happens is not that.

Pseudo-empathy vs true empathy

What typically happens is that the child is crying, and I want to make the child stop crying.

The same thing happens at work. There are employees who are the loudest, noisiest, or most anxious. Typically, other people don’t want to confront the anxiety or distress that person is causing them. So, people tend to react in one of two ways:

  1. Try to mollify that person, acting in ways that are going to stop them from doing or saying what’s causing distress for me.
  2. Disconnect, try to move away from that person, so they don’t have to hear them anymore.

In the second case there is no real connection to the other person, and no choice going on. It’s an unconscious reaction, that does not consider the consequences of the reaction on the relationship or the ability to work together.   

To make things easier, from now on I will use the following terms:

  • Pseudo-empathy  – describing situations where I react to my own anxiety, not based on what’s good for the other person;
  • Empathy – describing situations where I consciously react based on what’s good for the other person.

True empathy is about what’s best for the other person. In order to really be empathic, I need healthy psychological boundaries – to be able to separate myself from the other person, so my behavior would not be an unconscious reaction to others and I wouldn’t operate out of my own distress.

In the case of pseudo-empathy, I am not letting you see the feeling I am having. I might even not let me see the feeling I am having right now, but I am reacting to this feeling (the anxiety in me), rather than to you.

So, coming back to the child with the ice-cream, if I want to buy this child a new ice-cream, so that he would stop crying and therefore my internal distress from the crying would disappear, that’s pseudo-empathy. If I consciously respond on the basis of what’s best for the child, that’s empathy.

Let’s use an example from the work place. If an employee comes to me and says “I’m really nervous about the presentation this afternoon” and that’s making me nervous too (either I am aware of it or not, it doesn’t matter) and I just answer “You’ll be just fine! Don’t worry about it”, then it’s because I just want him to get out of my office quickly, so I can get this nervous feeling away from me. At that moment I am not genuinely interested in his experience or what’s making him feel nervous.

Let others have their experience

The most important skill for being truly empathic is the skill to really listen to the experience of another person and not to become reactive about that experience. If listening to your experience is causing a reaction in me and I start acting based on that reaction (my own feeling), that is already pseudo-empathy.

Each of us is creating our own unique and different experience in every moment. My experience – what I am observing, thinking, feeling and wanting – is influenced by my past experiences, beliefs, values, culture and even how many cups of coffee I had in the morning.

So, if there are five bystanders witnessing the child dropping the ice-cream, they are all having different experiences. Neuroscience has proven that the experience is mainly coming from the inside out.

The trick is that we are trained by upbringing and society to believe that the experience comes from the outside in. We are socialised to believe that this child is causing my experience. Therefore, we tend to assume that everyone else is having the same experience as ourselves. But when I try to change your experience in order to have a better experience for myself, I am holding you responsible for my experience.

In order to sustain a good partnership, where you are able to really talk to each other about what you think, what you really feel and want, you have to let the other person have their own experience.

If leaders try to please everybody (and therefore take responsibility for others’ experiences), it often leads to burnout.  

Good leaders let other people have their own experience, without trying to change that.

– Dr. Gervase Bushe

A lot of leaders want the people who work for them to be happy. But actually, you can’t make other people happy. What you can do is try to understand how they can make themselves happy and try to provide these conditions.

It’s the same with motivation. A leader cannot motivate employees. Everyone can motivate only themselves. A leader can understand what motivates the employees and try to create such conditions. And it is only possible to do that if the employees are willing to tell the leader what motivates them.

If my employees tell me what motivates them and I, as a leader, get anxious about not being able to provide that and start reacting based on my anxiety, then in the future no one will tell me what motivates them.

True empathy happens when we are connected, yet differentiated

The problem is, we learn in our families of origin how to manage interpersonal anxiety (and being in relationships with others is inevitably anxiety provoking from time to time). It’s often a silent agreement that you’ll look after my experience and I’ll look after your experience and I will not say anything that will make you anxious, upset or embarrassed and you’ll do the same for me and everything will be great.

What happens is that not talking about all these things doesn’t make them go away. And if we don’t work it out between each other, it gets more and more toxic in our heads, as we make up stories about each other and act based on those stories. The problem is that the stories we make up about others are almost always more negative than the reality. And if we never clear up these stories with each other, the partnership eventually falls apart.

In the case of real empathy, I need to understand that if your experience is triggering something in me (and often it will, as we are not robots), then it is not something that you are creating – I am creating my own experience from inside of me. To be able to that, I have to have a strong enough boundary to be able to manage my own experience and consciously decide not to react on my own feelings.

I may be feeling discomfort hearing about your experience and I don’t like what I am hearing, but I need to consciously understand that it is my experience and you are not creating that. I am creating the experience.

The most effective thing I can do in this moment is let you have your experience and be curious about it. To be able to do that, I need to be able to manage my own experience in the situation.

Pseudo-empathy amplifies anxiety

What is the impact on the organization, when the leader is shouldering the responsibility for the experience of the employees? It amplifies the anxiety in the system.

If the leader tries to fix people, change the employees’ experience, or manipulate them to have the ‘right’ experience, then even if people don’t know exactly what’s going on, they can kind of feel it. And anxiety goes up.

Partnership is a relationship where both parties feel responsible for the success of the common purpose.

Dr. Gervase Bushe

In order to stay in a partnership, I need to believe that we are both on the same playing field, meaning that we share all important information (good and bad) and are able to express what we really think and feel and want in different situations. I need to feel that I can trust you. And if those conditions are not met, then we are not really in a partnership.

How do we learn real empathy?

In order to be empathic, you need to learn to be ‘self-differentiated’, meaning that you are able to differentiate your own experience from the experience of others and allow others to have their own experiences.

The first step towards self-differentiation is self-awareness. To be aware of your own experience. To be able to differentiate your thoughts from your observations, to know what you are feeling in each experience and what you really want to happen.

In order to be truly empathic, you need to master some skills:

  1. The first step toward higher self-awareness is wanting to know your own experience and giving attention to it.
  2. The second part is my willingness to be curious about others’ experiences, but not take them on; just to let others have their experiences without taking responsibility for them.
  3. The third thing is that I should be able to describe my experience to others in a way that builds relationships, instead of destroying them. I have to learn to let you know what’s going on in me, otherwise you’ll make it up (and again the stories are almost always worse than reality). It’s important to learn to describe your experience without judgments.

This article is based on ideas from Dr Gervase Bushe’s Clear Leadership approach. We will be running a full Clear Leadership online training in the autumn. You can register your interest in the training here.
(You’re not committing to anything at this stage, but you will qualify for a 20% discount on the training fee)

Recently we ran a webinar that went deeper into the themes in this article. You can still get the replay!

We explained how what most people think of as empathy is often disguised anxiety, how this pseudo-empathy destroys families and organisations, and what you can do about it.

The webinar is also a good starting point for understanding the Clear Leadership approach. Register to view the replay

Article by Andy Smith and Elar Killumets

What Most Leaders Are Getting Wrong About Empathy, And Why That’s Dangerous In Times Of Change: Part 2

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