Is Empathy…Bad?

For years now, I’ve been banging on about empathy and its crucial nature in the workplace. So when this article showed up in my news feed, in agreement with the author of ‘Against Empathy’, I had to drop the Dan Brown I was reading (gasp! blasphemy!) to see just what Paul Bloom had to say for himself.

How can anyone be against empathy? How does the world function without it?

Marketers consciously use empathy to build communications. Companies spend millions on intelligence to understand user behaviour, empathise with their problems, and worm their way into their lives to solve them.

If a business does not have empathy, it will fail. If we don’t have empathy in our personal life, it will fall apart.

Or will it.

I went into the book with a resistance so strong, my impulse was to refute every word he wrote. But I came out of it finding myself agreeing with large chunks. (Eek!)

The Crux

I will not spoil the book for you (it’s most definitely worth a read). It’s helped me see my own rendering and reception of empathy from fresh perspectives. The author quotes innumerable studies, delving into the depths of empathy’s multiple facets.

In the end though, the problem with it is down to semantics.

The empathy he is arguing against, is understandable. A gist of what I agree with; perhaps you will too.

– He argues against emotional empathy – believing that putting yourself in someone’s shoes and feeling their pain can mean you are less helpful than you are capable of being.

– Empathy is not objective – it is dependant on you, the person you are empathising with, and the situation itself. It is also distinct from morality.

– Feeling empathy doesn’t necessarily make us want to do something about it.

– The ability to empathise can be (and is) used for horrible things. If you get someone, you can potentially use that to manipulate or victimise them.

Feelings vs Empathy

“And how does that make you feel?” is the single most important question a therapist asks. Why?

Because to work through whatever is causing us “feelings” manifesting in tears, churning stomachs, or boiling blood, we must first identify and label them. Read more about labelling feelings here.

This article by a therapist beautifully explains how she had to learn to distance herself from the emotions of her patients, to be more useful to them. In a sense, she had to be less empathetic, to be more empathetic. It also outlines three kinds of empathy – emotional, cognitive, compassionate.


In order to be truly empathetic, and therefore helpful, we must learn to separate it from emotion.

What Kind of Empathetic Should We Be?

And how the heck do we separate that from our emotions? How do we protect ourselves from being paralysed by feeling what someone else is feeling, and find it in ourselves to make rational decisions, every time?

If your mum is going through a mid-life crisis and struggling to find purpose in life, you will presumably spend more time with her, take her out for ice-cream, stroke her hair and hold her close, and offer solutions that you think might help. When she feels better, you feel better. And you do all this with her, by her side.

If your boss is visibly going through a mid-life crisis, do you stroke his hair and take him out for ice-cream? You understand what he is going through, you empathise with it on an intellectual level, but you may not feel his pain like you feel your mum’s.

If you detested your boss and had to force yourself to work with him everyday, would you still have the same levels of empathy? Would you offer him some kindness, or would you rather take a bath with a toaster?

We react to seemingly similar situations with varying empathy, depending on how we feel about that person. It is not possible, imho, to feel objective emotional empathy.

Workplace Empathy and Cognition

Now to focus on our workplaces, because personal and social situations are endlessly subjective.

In a decade of working, the people I have held steadfast respect for have displayed intelligent, cognitive empathy. They make a sincere attempt to understand you, but refrain from mirroring your feelings. Because if they did, they would fail at responding rationally.

These are usually the kinds of colleagues who try to see things from another person’s point of view, appreciate that there will be conflicting opinions and personalities, and agree to disagree.

They manage to do all this while consistently remaining respectful of colleagues, regardless of their position on the corporate ladder.

Whether or not we actually feel cognitive empathy for our colleagues, our intelligence lies in how we choose to display it.

Maybe you don’t understand why the designer needs 15 days to build a basic UI. Maybe she’s a lazy designer, or maybe you don’t really understand the process. Which one is it?

Perhaps you simply cannot see why your boss doesn’t respond to emails. Maybe you have no empathy for her “I’m too busy” refrain.

2-Way Street

By simply displaying empathy, we earn trust, we receive a response, we dilute conflict, and we build mutual respect. (Cognitively) empathetic leaders build teams that want to do better.

Empathy is fundamental to positive relationships. And positive relationships are key to successful transactions. Ask your sales guy.

So, how can we all show cognitive empathy in our workplaces? How can we keep ourselves from being gridlocked by our colleagues’ emotions, yet show we understand what they are going through (even if just to get work done)?

Use Words

“I hear you.”

“The effort you’ve put into this is loud and clear, so I know you’re not going to like that we’ve decided not to use this. Here’s why.”

“Are you okay? Let’s talk through this over coffee together.”

“Can you help me see what is making this task so challenging?”

Ask Questions, Even If You Don’t Actually Care

“This is a really good design, how did you come up with it?”

“Why do you think this is the wrong thing to do?”

“I can tell you are feeling some discomfort with this – can you help me understand why?”

Use Gestures

A leader I never got to work with but my old colleagues talked about all the time, was one who would come in to the office before everyone else, and leave a cupcake on her team’s desks with a ‘well-done!’ handwritten note. She would only do this if they bagged a huge contract or hit an important deadline, so she did not celebrate average everyday work.

Why did she do this? She did not have any personal feelings for them, and hired and fired as she saw fit. But she empathised with the fact that they worked hard as hell to achieve that result, that it looked great for her portfolio, and displayed that she recognised that.

Is Empathy Dangerous For Us?

Most people will respond positively when in receipt of cognitive empathy. If you say – “I’m sorry for what you’ve had to put up with, and I want you to know that I appreciate your effort,” you’ve most likely secured a tiny spot in their heart. Most people will feel a sudden sense of relief and gratitude that their colleague understands them.

That feeling of security is usually enough to make them want to keep doing better, and turn their empathy in your favour. So even if you’re not really sorry for what they’ve had to put up with, simply displaying it is good for you. (Unless they are just as emotionally intelligent as you are and totally call your bluff).

But there will always be those that use your empathy to perpetuate unfavourable behaviour – complacency, mediocrity, conflict. “You said you understood, but now you don’t understand? Are you always this indecisive?”

You might also find yourself in complex sticky situations. The above colleague might do something that needs reprimanding or disciplinary action. How do you then switch from being the person who empathised with them, to the person who now has to tell them off?

2 Sides To The Empathy Story

Say you and your manager are filled with empathy for each other, and work well together. Both of your KPIs include ‘cost control.’ You’ve hit your targets but your boss misses hers. When its appraisal time, she refuses you a raise so she can hit her cost control goal.

Can you detach yourself from the anger and betrayal you may feel, to empathise with her stance on it, or do you come away having wiped your heart clean of her?

If you are the manager, surely you would expect your team member to empathise with your situation – wouldn’t they do the same in your shoes?

Whose empathy should trump whose?

Tricky, Sticky, Be Picky

Empathy can be tricky. It can be dangerous to us. It’s not consistent, or unwavering, or objective. It is difficult to measure, varies in reception and reciprocation, can be challenging to communicate, and will occasionally, inevitably, produce undesirable results.

It can be hard to separate from emotion – they are miscible elements.

Display too much empathy, and we risk coming across as fake – how can you possibly “understand” everything that everyone says?

While empathy can be a powerful tool to diffuse workplace conflicts and shouting matches across boardroom tables, it can also be our falling.

Heaven forbid you find yourself in a room with two people at loggerheads, both of whom you’ve displayed empathy for. “Are you on my side, or his?!”

“Neither, I just want to get work done” then becomes a null answer. You have lost all clout with both parties.

The thing we can do, is be picky and choose our moments to show empathy (even if you feel it all the time). Not every situation requires it, and we learn to make the best use of it with practice.

You Don’t Have To Go It Alone

Some of us find great mentors at work, many of us don’t. Good mentors can help us evaluate and adjust our giving and receiving of empathy (and everything else at work). If you are so lucky to have a colleague that you ‘click’ with on an intellectual level, grab on to them and never let go!

And remember that your boss needs empathy too, it can get lonely up there.

Do you have a workplace-empathy story to share? Tell me here.

Buy the book here.