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Empathy is a core skill of successful leadership. But how much is too much? What happens if it feels like it’s sucking the life out of you?

Most of us know that empathy is a key component of emotional intelligence, and that empathy will help us become better leaders. But the question is where’s the line?

What happens if I’m seen as too empathetic and I end up becoming a counsellor? Or I start to ignore a real problem because I’m too concerned with being empathetic? Is there such a thing as being too empathetic? And importantly, what’s the difference between sympathy and empathy?

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What is Empathy?

First, what do I mean when I am talking about empathy?

The easiest way to explain empathy is ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’. That just means that you’re being aware of the thoughts and feelings of somebody else, and that you understand and appreciate those thoughts and feelings.

Importantly, you must do this without judgement, which means that even if you don’t agree with the other person, even if you think their thoughts and feelings are crazy, stupid or ridiculous, you still don’t judge them.

This is why being empathetic is so hard. But empathy is powerful because it enables you to create better relationships, and to find collaborative solutions rather than creating an antagonistic experience.

empathy is powerful because it enables you to create better relationships, and to find collaborative solutions rather than creating an antagonistic experience

Fight or Flight

Let’s say you have an employee who is always calling in sick at the last minute, and it disrupts the project team. The rest of the team is getting really annoyed with this employee.

You could go straight into a conversation with the employee and tell them there is an issue, and it’s affecting the whole team. Although sometimes this can be effective, it could also trigger an ‘amygdala hijack’ in the late employee, which means it triggers their fight or flight response.

Fight response If this happens they could become very defensive and start arguing back. For example they’ll give you all the reasons they were sick, why they couldn’t come in, why they had to cancel at the last minute. It’s never their fault, of course! But they have gone into fight mode.

Flight response Or they could completely shut down and not engage in the conversation just hoping that it will end. For example they’ll just say ‘Yep, yep, yep, yep. I’m going to be on time from now on’. And then, of course, they’re not on time.

Neither of these reactions support behaviour change.

The Empathetic Approach

If you take an empathetic approach, you might start by asking, ‘is everything okay?’ This changes the whole conversation. It opens the conversation, so the employee might say things like:

Actually, my child is sick at home

I’m really worried about my elderly relative.

My partner is really sick and I’m trying to convince them to go to the doctor, but they won’t go.

There could be a whole myriad of reasons behind the lateness. So once you ask, ‘hey, is everything, okay?’, you’re showing that you are ready to listen and to understand. You can still have the conversation about why it’s a problem, but you’re doing it through the lens of empathy, because you’re putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Your aim is to find an outcome that will work for the employee in their situation, but also to give the project team what they need – perhaps getting someone else on board temporarily, changing the schedule, or having the employee agree to provide more notice if they will be late.

Empathy vs Sympathy

So what’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? An easy way to explain is that sympathy starts with ‘I’ statements. For example, if you were providing condolences, you would say ‘I was sad to hear…’.

Using sympathy instead of empathy can result in someone feeling that they haven’t been heard, because ‘I’ statements could mean that I’m focusing on myself. I might compare the situation to something that happened to me, and that doesn’t allow the person to feel heard.

Empathy is putting ourselves into someone else’s shoes, while sympathy is essentially feeling sorry for them. That’s why sympathy is great when we’re giving condolences, when there has been a tragedy. But when someone’s trying to explain to you what’s going on in their life, so that you can understand them, sympathy is often not the right thing.

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Empathy vs Being Nice

Empathy is not the same as being nice. You can be empathetic while still being clear about requirements and outcomes. In our example of the late employee, this might mean asking a lot of open-ended questions to come up with a solution with the employee. For example:

How long will this situation last?

What alternatives are there?

Can you change to a role on the project that is not so time-dependent?

Once you have answers to these questions, you can let the project team know what to expect. You don’t need to give them all the personal details. But you can say, ‘Look, this person is going to be a bit late, or not around very much, or off sick, or whatever it might be, for the next two weeks, and then they will be back on schedule. And this is the plan for how we will handle it.’ It means people are in the loop, and they can plan.

Once you’ve agreed on a particular solution, it’s also important to check in with the person regularly. You just check in to say, ‘Are we still on track? Is the plan still working for us?’

Empathy vs Emotional Overwhelm

Some business owners have told me that they feel they’re too empathetic. In fact they start becoming emotional punching bags. But empathy is about paying attention to other people’s needs without sacrificing your own.

You need to be prepared to explore and define your own needs. Once you know what they are, you can make a conscious decision about how much you can give to someone else, and how much you can request for yourself, as well.

What Can You Do If Empathy Becomes Overwhelming?

Empathy is closely related to emotional intelligence. But what if we’re not in tune with our own emotions and we don’t know what our emotional level is? How do you know when it has become too much?

Part of this is thinking about statements you can use when you know that it’s getting overwhelming. So if someone’s giving you their whole life story, and you think ‘I just can’t do this today’, it’s okay to say things like:

I think this is really important. Do you have someone at home to support you?

Do you have any friends you can trust to talk to?

Do you have a good GP?

Would you like some help finding support options?

This is a way to steer the conversation towards the importance of the person getting support, without actually saying, ‘I’m not the one to give it to you’. That’s how you can draw the line. But unless you know what your own emotional resilience level is, and being in tune to that level changing over time, it can be very difficult to gauge when it has become overwhelming.

Empathetic Leadership

Empathy is very important in leadership. And it’s not about being nice. It is about understanding what’s happening with your team members, and being able to show them that you understand, and that you’re trying to find an outcome that works for both of you.

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