Most people long for you to listen with compassion, the cornerstone of empathy. They want you to sense their discomfort or distress especially when they struggle with articulating how they feel. They may even want you to commiserate with them, confirming they have the right to feel the way they do.
Beware of the empathy trap.
Empathy demonstrates you care. When you express your understanding of how people feel, they feel seen, even valued. But seeing and understanding are different from feeling with them. If you embody the emotions you pick up from someone, especially when you are coaching them, you are no longer able to help them move through their current state. They won’t let go and move on.
Empathetic Reactivity – When too much empathy is bad
In their research, Sara Hodges and Robert Biswas-Diener differentiate empathic concern when you feel compassion and warmth for a person, and empathic distress when you feel emotions with a person and maybe even mirror their behaviors when they cry, show disgust, or clench their fists in anger.1 Replicating a slight facial expression may demonstrate understanding. Echoing their full emotional display goes too far.
With empathy, you will feel the stress, anxiety, and anger other people feel in your body. If you let these emotions sit in your body, your body and mind can be emotionally hijacked.
Unbridled empathy can lead to concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, making it difficult to release the emotions.2 Taking on what other people feel so that you live their experience can make you susceptible to depression or persistent irritation.
Not only will this lead to burnout, you can break the bond of trust you were hoping to strengthen. When you embody other people’s emotions, you may feel responsible for relieving their pain. You feel the need to fix their problems and make them feel better.
Unless people want your help, your intrusive reaction will push them away no matter the value of your intention. They might feel less understood. They might feel disrespected or enfeebled when you interrupt to render aid. The response you believe is “being supportive” could damage their sense of safety and trust. They no longer feel they can fully express themselves with you.
How accurate is your empathy?
One of the most difficult skills to master is discerning your own understanding from theirs. No matter how sure you are that you can name their emotion and hear their thoughts, you always want to confirm the accuracy of what you think they are experiencing. Offer what you hear, see, and sense in a way they can safely deny or alter your perception. Gracefully accept when you are wrong and seek to know more. Even if you believe you have lived through the same experience they describe, you haven’t. They are not you.
Please don’t say, “I know what you mean.” Share what you think they mean by summarizing what they say, recognizing how their emotions have shifted, and using silence to let them process your observations.
Don’t try to imagine how you would feel in a similar situation. You can’t conjure up empathy. You can only receive what they express and offer what you notice back to see if you understand correctly. Even then, accuracy isn’t that important. Your ability to get them to reflect on their thoughts and reactions is the purpose you are trying to achieve.
How to foster non-reactive empathy
Non-reactive empathy does not mean you suppress your emotions. Your body is still reacting even if you are adept at hiding what you feel. Your biology will affect the energy you project. The human survival instinct is good at picking up these energetic waves. Most people know when you are hiding your feelings.
You create a safe space when you are receptive to whatever you see, hear, or feel, and then you relax your body and let the emotion subside.3
Monitoring and adjusting your empathic response might feel awkward at first. With practice it becomes automatic and immediate. Learning practices in emotional intelligence will help you regulate your emotional responses.
Non-reactive empathy is especially useful when you feel the urge to jump in and fix people, helping them see what they should feel and do instead. This urge isn’t empathy; you are judging they are wrong or inadequate.
I was coaching a man in China in front of a big audience. He wanted to explore what to do when he retired. I asked him what he liked most about his job being the Director of HR for a large company. He told me he loved developing people and have them realize their potential. He loved seeing the spark in their eyes when they realized they could be more than they had believed. Most of all, he was proud to be instilling the Communist principles. I felt my body shudder. My democratic values curdled in my bones. But it wasn’t my place to judge him or change him. I noticed my reaction and let it go so I could be fully present with this wonderful man who didn’t want to quit helping people when he retired.
We accept, appreciate, and encourage expression in others by observing our reactions and letting them go. Regulate your empathy so you can use it wisely.
1 Sara D. Hodges and Robert Biswas-Diener. Balancing the Empathy Expense Account: Strategies for regulating empathic response. In T. Farrow & P. Woodruff (Eds.), Empathy in mental illness (p. 389–407). Cambridge University Press, 2007.
2 Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, Too much emotional intelligence is a bad thing. Scientific American Mind, March 1, 2017.
3 Marcia Reynolds, What is Psychological Safety and How You Can Create It, Covisioning.com, Nov. 26, 2016