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Stopping empathy from destroying organizations & families

This post is based on a webinar “Stopping empathy from destroying organizations & families” with dr. Gervase Bushe and Elar Killumets. The webinar had a lot of technical problems due to bad connection, but you can still watch a replay of the webinar

As we move into the 21st century organizations, where we move away from bureaucratic kind of organizing, towards more network forms of organizing, where we rely on people and on being in a relationship and working together to solve complex issues, we need to up our game in how we organize our relationships.

Empathy is commonly thought of as a vital and necessary thing in a human being, and essential in leadership. The problem is that the common understanding of empathy is incomplete.

New world needs new leadership skills

Dr. Bushe compared the current changes in the world with the industrial revolution, as the changes we are currently going through are just as profound.

Industrial revolution created its own forms of organizing and its own processes of leadership. We are currently going through another transformation that is requiring new forms of organizing and new forms of leadership.

The new kind of organizing is based more on networks and people working together to solve more complex issues. Therefore, interpersonal relationships are in more focus than ever before. One characteristic that is commonly expected from leaders is empathy. But unfortunately, what’s commonly considered as empathy is actually pseudo-empathy leading to dysfunctional behavior and anxiety.

Elar Killumets shared that during leadership trainings, 25% of managers turn to him after the training with questions about how to apply the same principals at home with their family. As partnerships between people in essence are the same – no matter where they take place, at work or at home – the things discussed during this webinar are universally applicable to all partnerships and interactions with other people.

What’s wrong with being emphatic?

Nothing. But as always – the devil is in details!

First, let me tell you a story to better illustrate what I am trying to explain:

It was spring in Estonia and it was one of the first sunny days after a long dark winter period. I went to the swimming pool with my kids (3 and 5 at the time) and after swimming it was still so warm and sunny outside that we decided to buy ice-creams. So, we went to the store and agreed beforehand that we will buy ice-creams and we will open them when we get back to the car. My youngest son has always been kind of a Houdini. He always manages to fly below the radars and do his own thing regardless what has been agreed or told. So obviously, it happened again. I was still at the cashier counter, when suddenly the whole supermarket was taken over by my son’s crying. He had managed to quickly open the ice-cream and drop it on the ground right there before the cashiers’ counters. What surprised me, was not my son’s behavior, but the reactions of people around us.

As it was the first warm and sunny day of that spring, people in the store where really in a good mood. People where smiling, their shopping carts were filled with grill supplies and beer and you could really see, that they are just a few minutes away from having a nice grill party with friends and families. So, everything was excellent! But something happened – a little boy started to cry about spilled ice-cream. At that moment I saw three kind of behaviors from people around me: some people started to choose the exit further away from us, some people speeded up their step and almost ran through us toward the exit – just to get away very quickly – and some people tried to interfere to the situation and told me things like ‘you are so tough parent’ or ‘he’s crying so nicely, why don’t you buy him a new ice-cream’.

What’s going on in this example situation is, that someone else is doing something that’s causing me to feel anxious. I might not even be aware of my anxiety at that moment, but I just don’t feel good. And in this moment, I am reacting to my inner feeling by trying to change something that’s going on around me so that I could feel OK again.

And this is when something that appears to be empathy or caring or looking after someone else, is really not about them. It’s really about me at that point. About I’m experiencing the moment, what’s causing me distress and me wanting to change what’s going on around me, so I would feel OK again.

When is empathy creating value?

The most effective parenting is to work with natural consequences (this comes from learning psychology). So, if you drop your ice-cream, the natural consequence is that you don’t have ice-cream anymore. If parents intervene and take away the natural consequences of children’s behavior, they are taking away the possibility for their children to learn from this situation. Or instead the kids will learn that if I screw up, someone else is going to fix it. Probably that is not the lesson you want your children to learn.

So as a parent, and the same goes for leadership, I need to consciously think through the implications of my actions from the point of view, what’s best for my child (or my employee). It might be, that I come to the conclusion that it has been a though day and I am going to buy my child another ice-cream. Or I might think that the child needs to learn to take care of his things and when he dropped the ice-cream, it’s an opportunity to learn about natural consequences.

So, it is always a choice. But the choice should be made thinking about what’s best for him. What typically happens is not that.

How empathy is turned into a destructive force

What typically happens is that the kid is crying and I want to make the kid stop crying.

The same thing goes on at work. There are employees who are the loudest, nosiest or most anxious. Typically, other people don’t want to confront the anxiety or distress that person is causing them. So, people tend to react in one of two ways:

  1. Try to mollify him, acting in ways that is going to stop this person from doing or saying, what’s causing distress for me.
  2. Disconnect, try to move away from that person, so they don’t have to hear him anymore.

In the second case there is no real connection to the other person or no choice going on. It’s an unconscious reaction, not thinking about the consequences of the reaction on the relationship or the ability to work together.   

To make things easier, from now on I will use the following terms:

  • Pseudo-empathy  – situations where I react on my own anxiety, not based on what’s good for the other person;
  • Empathy – situations where I consciously react based on what’s good for the other person.

True empathy is about what’s best for the other person. In order to really be empathic, healthy psychological boundaries are needed – to be able to separate myself from the other person, so my behavior would not be unconscious reaction to others and I wouldn’t operate out of my own distress.

In case of pseudo-empathy, I am not letting you see the feeling I am having. I might even not let me see the feeling I am having right now, but I am reacting to this feeling (the anxiety in me), rather than to you.

So, coming back to the kid with ice-cream, if I want to buy this kid a new ice-cream, so that he would stop crying and therefore my internal distress from the crying would disappear, that’s pseudo-empathy. If I would consciously react on what’s best for the kid, that’s empathy.

Just to bring an example from a work place. If an employee comes to me and says “I’m really nervous about the presentation this afternoon” and it is making me also nervous (either I am aware of it or not, it doesn’t matter) and I just answer “You’ll be just fine! Don’t worry about it”, then it’s because I just want him to get out of my office quickly, so I wouldn’t get this nervous feeling away from me. At that moment I am not genuinely interested in his experience, what’s making him feel nervous etc.

Let others have their experience

The most important skill to help you be truly empathic, is the skill to really listen to the experience of another person and not to become reactive about that experience. If listening to your experience is causing a reaction in me and I start acting based on that reaction (my own feeling), that is already pseudo-empathy.

Each of us are creating our own unique and different experience in every moment. My experience – what I am thinking, feeling and wanting – is influenced by my past experiences, beliefs, values, culture and even how many cups of coffee I had in the morning.

So, if there are 5 bystanders witnessing the kid dropping the ice-cream, they are all having different experiences. Neuroscience has proven that the experience is mainly coming from inside out.

The trick is that we are trained to believe that the experience comes from the outside in. Meaning that we are trained to believe that this kid is causing my experience. Therefore, we tend to assume that everyone else is having the same experience as ourselves. But when I try to change your experience in order to have a better experience for myself, I am holding you responsible for my experience.

In order to sustain a good partnership, where you are able to really talk to each other about what you think, what you really feel and want, you have to let the other person to have their own experience.

If leaders try to please everybody (and therefore take responsibility for others’ experiences), it often leads to burnout.  

Good leaders let other people have their own experience, without trying to change that.

Dr. Gervase Bushe

A lot of leaders want the people, who work for them, to be happy. But actually, you can’t make other people happy. What you can do, is try to understand, how they can make themselves happy and try to provide these conditions.

It’s the same with motivation. A leader cannot motivate employees. Everyone can motivate only themselves. A leader can understand, what motivates the employees and try to create such conditions. And it is only possible to do that, if the employees are willing to tell the leader, what motivates them.

If my employees tell me, what motivates them and I, as a leader, get anxious about not being able to provide that and start reacting based on my anxiety, then in the future no one will tell me, what motivates them.

Connected, jet separated

The problem is, we learn in our families of origin how to manage interpersonal anxiety (and being in relationships with others is anxiety provoking). It’s often a silent agreement that you’ll look after my experience and I’ll look after your experience and I will not say anything that will make you anxious, upset or embarrassed and you’ll do the same for me and everything will be great.

What happens is, that not talking about all these things doesn’t make them go away. And if we don’t work it out between each other, it gets more and more toxic in our heads, as we make out stories about each other and act based on those stories. The problem is, that the stories we make out about others, are almost always more negative than the reality. And if we never clear out these stories with each other, the partnership eventually falls apart.

In case of real empathy, I need to understand that if your experience is triggering something in me (and often it will, as we are not robots), then it is not something that you are creating – I am creating my own experience from inside of me. To be able to that, I have to have a strong enough boundary to be able to manage my own experience and consciously decide not to react on my own feelings.

I may be having discomfort hearing about your experience and I don’t like what I am hearing, but I need to consciously understand that it is my experience and you are not creating that. I am creating the experience.

The most effective thing I can do in this moment, is let you have your experience and be curious about it. To be able to do that, I need to be able to manage my own experience in the situation.

Pseudo-empathy amplifies anxiety

What is the impact on the organization, when the leader is keeping himself responsible for the experience of the employees? It amplifies the anxiety in the system.

If the leader tries to fix people, change the employees’ experience, or manipulate them to have the ‘right’ experience, even if people don’t know exactly what’s going on, they can kind of feel it. And anxiety goes up.

Partnership is a relationship where both parties feel responsible for the success of the common purpose.

Dr. Gervase Bushe

In order to stay in a partnership, I need to be believe, that we are both on the same playing feel, meaning that we share all important information (good and bad) and are able to express, what we really think and feel and want in different situations. I need to feel that I can trust you. And if those conditions are not met, then we are not really in a partnership.

How to learn real empathy?

In order to be empathic, you need to learn to be self-differentiated, meaning that you are able to differentiate your own experience from the experience of others and allow others to have their own experiences.

The first step towards self-differentiation is self-awareness. To be aware of your own experience. To be able to differentiate your thoughts from your observations, to know what you are feeling in each experience and what you really want to happen.

In order to be truly empathic, you need to master some skills:

  1. The first step toward higher self-awareness is wanting to know your own experience and putting attention to it.
  2. The second part is my willingness to be curious about others’ experiences, but not take it on. Just to let others have their experiences without taking responsibility for it.
  3. The third thing is that I should be able to describe my experience to others in a way that builds relationships, instead of destroying them. I have to learn to let you know what’s going on in me or otherwise you’ll make it up (and again the stories are almost always worst than reality). It’s important to learn to describe your experience without judgements.
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Elar Killumets

Elar Killumets

Elar Killumets is an organizational development mentor, change management consultant and leadership trainer with a strong academic research background. His main job is helping business leaders operate in uncertainty and implement organizational change. Elar’s range of topics is very wide. In his development and consulting projects, the focus is usually on the entire organization, focusing on the most important management processes that affect performance. Elar is an expert in addressing broader strategic issues (eg changing organizational culture, increasing organizational adaptability and flexibility, etc.) as well as more tactical challenges (eg eliminating the negative effects of silos, aligning the performance management system with strategic goals, etc).

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