Can you be too caring? How to avoid the empathy trap

Empathy is a vital skill – not just for leaders, but for everyone in today’s society. 

Along with self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and social skills, empathy is one of the 5 key emotional intelligence skills. In simple terms, empathy means you are able to understand how other people may feel in certain situations.   

Recent months have reinforced how important empathy is in the workplace, because remote working and dealing with a health crisis understandably trigger feelings and emotions which impact our working lives. 

But with this in mind, it’s important to recognise that there are different types of empathy – and each can have effects on your wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around you. 

The 3 types of empathy

According to Daniel Goleman, a pioneer in the area of emotional intelligence, the 3 types of empathy are:

  • Cognitive empathy
  • Emotional empathy
  • Empathic concern.

Cognitive empathy is an intellectual understanding that the people around you might feel a certain way about a particular situation. This means you can recognise feelings in yourself and others, but choose if you want to feel them directly. 

Emotional empathy is when you literally take on the feeling or emotion of the person who is directly affected by the situation. For example, if you hear a colleague is having a baby you may feel genuinely excited. If you hear a colleague’s family member has passed away, you may feel genuinely sad. 

Empathic concern is a little more like sympathy, where the focus remains solely on the person who is feeling the emotion. Instead of becoming cognitively or directly involved, you focus on what the other person needs from you and respond with compassion. 

Finding the right balance

Most people experience all 3 types of empathy, depending on the situation and how closely they are connected to the person going through it. 

In the workplace, it can be a bit trickier to find the right balance – especially when you work in a large team. Always responding with cognitive empathy may seem robotic, or lead people to think you are not genuine. But always responding with emotional empathy means you constantly bear the emotional weight of other people’s situations, and this can drain your energy and lead to health issues or burn out.  

The key to striking a balance is to use self-regulation and revert to empathic concern where it’s required. This means responding in a calm and compassionate way to the person who is in the situation. You might ask them:

“What do you need?”

This question often works really well, because it:

  • allows the person to develop clarity and a plan to address their concern
  • stops you from trying to solve it for them
  • sets clear boundaries and expectations about your role
  • prevents you giving away your energy all the time
  • means only 1 person needs assistance, rather than 2 (if you become distressed)

It also helps the person feel supported, rather than directed. For example, you are not telling them to go home – which is something you may need but they don’t. Instead, you are openly asking what they need at this moment in time. 

Remember too that if a person needs professional help, Lifeline is available to every Australian 24/7 on 13 11 14. 

Get more strategies like this

We explore strategies like this every Friday in our Positive Plenary sessions. If you wish to join, simply email me at kv@kimvella.com.au.  

If you would like to explore one-on-one coaching, please book a free 15 minute coaching session so we can get to know each other and decide if my coaching style is right for you. 

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