Empathy in Communication: a Map or a Stumbling Block?

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In one of my previous posts, I mentioned that people are primarily social animals and social bonding is extremely important. Isolation is unbearable and we are doing our best to stay connected. We are complex social weather forecasting systems constantly gathering information about our social surroundings. We need sophisticated mechanisms to process it and we do have them.

We discovered we have a capability to understand others have thoughts, desires, beliefs and knowledge different from ours and called it Theory of Mind. We also recognized our superpower to understand and feel others as if we were them and called it Empathy.

Empathy is having its moment. More and more people are admitting it is necessary, indispensable, crucial for peaceful and balanced humankind existence. Empathy is about sharing feelings, experiences, thoughts, and perspectives. It’s about figuring out what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, digging into the ulterior motives and reflecting on the cause-effect relationships. Empathy is the key element of emotional intelligence, an engine behind our analytical centre responsible for socially friendly and caring behaviour.

Lack of empathy undermines collaboration and creates barriers to effective communication. Little empathy usually results in refusing to listen to alternative points of views, holding grudges, being too judgmental and blaming, forming opinions early and defending them without considering other perspectives. It makes us shortsighted regarding mistakes cause-effect attribution and makes us judge by personalities rather than rely on situational knowledge and systems vision. Effective teamwork needs empathy. Luckily, it is here for us and it gets promoted, so more and more people are becoming knowledgeable and skilled in empathy.

What role does empathy play in communication? As I mentioned above the absence or lack of empathy can jeopardize communication. But when in place and working, empathy is great facilitation, a map to effective communication.

Above all, a successful communicator is an empathic person.

Empathy helps to avoid jumping to conclusions. It encourages educated guesses about the possible reasons for peoples’ behaviour. It teaches us to predict certain behaviour in response to certain stimuli.

The more we reflect on and identify certain interaction patterns, the more we understand what factors participate in the decision-making and cognitive thought process. Empathy teaches us to be selective about what we want to convey and how. It definitely makes us better communicators by teaching us the best ways to present the most relevant information. It makes us better influencers in the end.

Emotional empathy helps us build long-term and lasting relationships based on emotional connections with other people. Proper empathic engagement from an employer or a manager is likely to build loyalty and receive support from their employees in future. Empathy can help parents build strong relationships with their children based on trust and mutual perspective taking (more about empathic parenting in a book by Ross Green – Raising Human Beings).

But with all respect, just like any powerful weapon or technology, empathy also has its pitfalls and, when misused or abused, can be detrimental.
Such thing as the empathy trap, people getting overwhelmed by the empathy, affects communication in a negative way and can become a real stumbling block.

Perspective-taking, or cognitive empathy, is a powerful tool. It’s a bridge to another person’s mind but it heavily depends on your prior experience. Empathy relying only on your experience is like trying to reach a certain destination (understanding other person’s behaviour) with a map that you made all on your own. It will reflect the places you’ve been too. But you never know if the other person’s way actually went through them. Good if you can sit and try to draw the map together. It might turn out that the way is much shorter or the destination is in the completely opposite direction. But if you are doing it all on your own, your map is less likely to reflect the real state of things. So before you actually embark on this behaviour guessing journey make sure your map is unbiased and does include the other’s perspective.

The absence of empathy makes us prone to conclusion-jumping and automatic assumptions because we don’t draw any maps at all. But the presence of empathy does not fully eliminate the risk of the attribution bias. To gain more accuracy and reduce the risk of false assumptions, you should be aware of them in the first place. Gathering more information also contributes to less biased empathic guessing.

Empathic bias is worsened by the fact that we tend to empathize less with people we know little or who are not similar to us. It is difficult to empathize when there are differences in culture and living conditions. This fact makes it complicated to work in multicultural and geographically dispersed teams. The possible solution is bringing people closer together on a regular basis. Empathy is more likely to occur between people who meet in person more often. The more people learn about each other, the more face to face communication they have, the more empathic they become.

Emotional empathy is partially an automatic process. Everyone can recognize some emotions automatically and they tend to be contagious. Smile, they say, it’s contagious. But what if the emotion is not that positive? What if it is annoying or even devastating?

Personal distress in response to someone’s emotions can be disabling and jeopardize the whole communication act. When you see someone experiencing a strong emotion and you can’t keep away from engaging (not necessarily in an explicit way), it can bring your communication to a deadlock. We tend to judge people who remain dispassionate in certain situations and tend to blame them for emotional detachment of any kind. But in fact, they might be just skilled in empathy management not allowing their emotions to step in when decision making should be clear and objective. Emotional empathy is contagious and immediate. Having too much emotional empathy can jeopardize rational decision-making and big-picture vision. It can set a strategy on fire and bring unexpected consequences.

The emotions you experience as empathic can also be biased by your previous emotional background. Highly empathic people are good at spotting the emotions of others but not always interpreting them correctly. Overly empathic people risk to turn into people pleasers: they make less distinction between the self and the other and become too tenderhearted towards others. It results in saying what others expect from them and not what they really want or have to say.

In general, the ability to imagine oneself as another person is a sophisticated imaginative process and it often drains out our energy. Communication engaging empathy can be exhausting since it requires gathering the information on the go, analyzing it, and adapting your responses accordingly all the time.

Regardless of all the pitfalls, it’s still not possible to build effective communication without empathy. Keeping in mind that empathy overuse can cause trouble will help you stay on the safe side and remain alert to its possible consequences. 

Empathize in moderation and it will definitely help you promote your communication skills to the next level.

Stay tuned and subscribe for more communication updates! 🙂

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