Five common myths about empathy

What do you believe about empathy?

I asked that question on my social media channels, and was fascinated by the range of responses.

1. Empathy is hard (and you’re already overworked and overwhelmed).

Empathy can seem difficult because we feel vulnerable when we allow ourselves to experience it. In fact, though, empathy is a natural part of who we are as humans: our brains are hard-wired to respond to others’ experiences, both physical and emotional, through the activation of “mirror neurons.” While each of us may have a greater or lesser natural talent for empathy, any of us can develop better empathetic skills if we wish.

2. Having empathy for someone means taking on their emotional energy (and you don’t want to feel and have to cope with their anger, pain, or discomfort).

Many sensitive people feel overwhelmed when they allow themselves to empathize with another person. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, even for those who are extremely empathetic. Remembering to stay within our own experience and observe from our own perspective allows us to notice that we’re empathizing with that person over there, rather than feeling something here within us.

3. Having empathy for someone is weak (and no one wants to be perceived as weak).

Empathy is actually one of the most powerful tools we have for creating connection, building trust, and effectively navigating the many challenges in the workplace and in life. It’s a strength, not a weakness.

4. Empathy is inappropriate in the workplace (and you don’t want a reputation for being “fluffy” or overly emotional).

Emotion in the workplace certainly has to be managed, and what’s appropriate in one organization will be inappropriate in another. That said, the ability to empathize with co-workers, team members, managers, and clients or customers is a powerful way to build shared meaning, create community, and negotiate from a position of strength.

5. Having empathy for someone means automatically agreeing with them (and you don’t want to give up your ideas, lose the fight, or be perceived as not being able to stand your ground).

In fact, when you truly understand someone’s perspective – what they want, why they want it, how they feel about it – you have a wealth of information to draw upon in building the case for your own desires. Even more importantly (and fascinatingly!), when the other person feels as if you truly understand how they feel – in other words, when they “feel felt,” as author Mark Goulston, MD, puts it – they become far more open and willing to listen to what you have to say.

All that said …

Clearly, many people find empathy challenging – some because it comes too easily and is therefore overwhelming, others because it seems too hard and they’re not sure there’s any real benefit, and still others because it feels unsafe to be that open to someone else’s experience.

Yet empathy is the single most useful and powerful tool there is for building professional relationships, putting your ideas out there and negotiating for their acceptance, resolving conflict, and, very simply, being truly successful.