The Power of Empathy – the Good and the Bad

Demonstrating the power of empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
—Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

Many have written about empathy, and most conclude that the ability to empathize is essential to inter-personal, professional and commercial success. But are there different facets of empathy? And can too much empathy be detrimental?

Two types of empathy are “cognitive” and “emotional”. Emotional empathy is also known as “sympathy”.

What’s the difference between them? I like to explain this by using an analogy of how we respond to watching a movie. Imagine a movie scene where a character is crying. If you shed a tear as well because you share the same feelings, you’re being emotionally empathetic, or sympathetic. If you don’t cry, but you fully understand and appreciate why the movie character is crying, then you’re showing cognitive empathy.

Like all feelings and emotions, empathy has a spectrum of intensity. Empathy and sympathy can be expressed and experienced interchangeably and dynamically, depending on factors including our cultural environment, personal history and experiential circumstances.

The Power of Empathy

At one extreme is sympathizing with another person’s emotions to the extent that you’re experiencing their feelings in the same way they are. Being unreservedly sensitive to the emotional needs of others and striving to provide boundless caring and support is often at the root of burn-out among people working in many industry sectors, including healthcare. At the other end of the spectrum, being dispassionate and over-rationalizing the emotions of others might portray a persona of strength and independence but, paradoxically, this behaviour can also consume much emotional energy; for the individual and those around them. According to Nora Roberts, New York Bestselling romance author, when facing the emotional extremes of the sympathy spectrum “Feeling too much is a hell of a lot better than feeling nothing.”

Cognitive empathy is shown when one person seeks to understand the thinking and perspectives of another. It features a rational-logical feedback loop that can be found in negotiations or situations where motivation is needed. It’s also the mode of empathy that, for example, healthcare professionals adopt to enable appropriate caring. However, too much detachment from emotion can be construed as indifference.

Utilizing Empathy in the Workplace

So, how should empathy be experienced and managed in the workplace? In short, there needs to be balance. Taking an emotionally empathetic stance by having too much concern about others’ feelings and perspectives can get in the way of objectivity and goal orientation. Too much sympathy can also lead to wanting to “rescue” those who may be experiencing difficulty in the workplace. On the other hand, adopting cognitive empathy, and being willing to guide and support someone to achieve their own goals, enables that person to make progress under their own steam. This is “compassionate empathy” – cognitive understanding of the needs and perspectives of another and exercising the will to help them to help themselves.

Albert Schweitzer said it quite succinctly: “The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.”

In corporate environments, I’ve often heard that being empathetic is a rather superfluous trait – a “soft skill” that isn’t related to the core activities needed to achieve business objectives. In fact, the opposite is true. For example, one study conducted by a world-famous cosmetics company was reported to show that sales staff who demonstrated empathy achieved on average $100,000 more in annual sales than their colleagues who were not empathetic.

This article may draw on, and add to, the many pieces that have already been written about the power of empathy. But the messages about the feelings, thoughts and emotions that contribute to empathy need to be reiterated. Balanced empathy is good for us – in our personal lives and in the workplace.

I’d be glad to hear any of your own experiences and opinions about the power of empathy – the good and the bad.

Austin Freedman


6 thoughts on “The Power of Empathy – the Good and the Bad

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  5. This is a very insightful article about a subject that many find difficult to discuss. It’s about feelings and emotions, and in the work environment having too much empathy may even be seen as a weakness. To me, having the right kind of empathy is just as important in our private lives as well as at work. But this takes a lot of soul searching, if not extra inner reflection. Do we have the luxury of time to do this?

    As a romance writer (that was a lovely reference to one of my favorite authors, Nora Roberts!) I know that empathy is seen as part of the ‘soft and cuddly’ feelings of romantic relationships, rather than knowing how to be empathetic at work and in business. But just like we are made of many different parts to make a whole, making people in your life feel understood, and cared for – not just heard – doesn’t take that much more than a few minutes, sometimes. This can sometimes change someone’s life. Surely that’s worth so much!

    Thanks for the great post. Always eye-opening, Austin. Can’t wait for the next one.

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