What empathy is NOT

Another Communications discussion had to do with emotional intelligence and how it relates to communicating in a workplace, especially with those whose communication style and personality are much difference from your own. Communicate is what I do for a living, and my “in the trenches” viewpoint about all the platitudes and abbreviated lists floating out there of “shoulds” was different than any of the other students. What empathy is and what it is not is something that if you do not understand, you will create chaos in your life about nonsense that has nothing at all to do with you. Bottom line: you cannot “fix” anybody else.

Interestingly, most of the articles I found on my search as well as over the years all seem written from the perspective that people are not self-aware in general to truly know their own behaviors, thoughts and emotions and therefore lack the ability to be aware of those things in others. Kendra Cherry’s 2018 article on Very Well Mind cited and was based upon a 2011 American Psychology Association study, and she pulled from it five typical things we read in such self-improvement articles: increase self-awareness, practice self-regulation, improve your social skills, become more empathetic, and work on your own intrinsic motivation.

I agree with the need for self-knowledge and monitoring as it strongly assists in retaining anything else learned. It is a good practice to spend time contemplating what your goals are and what motivates you. It is also good practice not to be rude to others, to listen when others are speaking, and to behave at all times so as not to inflict one’s own drama upon others nor run with scissors causing chaos.

After years in ministry where people confide all manner of emotional traumas to me and I get the opportunity to talk them down off the ceiling, I consider myself to be a competent operator if not somewhat of a practical expert on empathy and what it is and what it is not. If I had not long ago learned the difference between being “caring” and being “empathetic,” I might be in the asylum by now.

May I share an “in the trenches” perspective on empathy? 

Many simplified “how-to” guides preaching “be more empathetic” ring hollow and don’t give practical advice for dealing with emotional situations they expect you to be empathetic in. How you deal with someone in your family is not necessarily the same way you’d deal with someone at work. Empathy is generally defined as putting yourself in the other person’s place to better understand how to interact with them: think outside of your own box, put yourself in their shoes, Golden Rule, be a good human. A self-centered or narcissistic person would believe that empathy amounts to mind-reading the other person’s intent and motivation, which is a quite different problem having to do with making snap judgments and erroneous assumptions – something we have all seen enough times to recognize.

In my experience and observation, most people do not, in fact, have a deficit in the empathy department. I find that the empathetic individual often takes on too much of the other person’s “place” and oftentimes feels responsible for compensating or carrying the weight of it, only to then find him or herself in internal conflict from that point on. This can happen to an empathetic person in any situation and overwhelm them if they are not self-aware enough to know that they are “taking on” the stress energy of others around them.

If you have ever said, “I don’t know why I care about their situation more than they seem to,” you have experienced misplaced empathy.

Emotional intelligence certainly involves paying attention and picking up subtle cues. I have seen many people experience tension not from anything they have done or brought to the table, but due to the emotional energy they are sensing coming from others. The thing that always struck me as odd is why don’t they know they’re doing that, so I started asking the question aloud when I’d watch it happen in front of me. A lot of people consider themselves claustrophobic in crowded rooms, and it may well be due to a reactive sensitivity to the “vibes” coming from others, a sensory overload, if you will.

If you have ever felt like you had to tiptoe around someone or found yourself suddenly nervous and jump into people-pleasing mode because you sense that someone is angry or upset – even if it’s not with you – you may be over-empathetic, sometimes called overly sensitive.

Empathetic people often believe they have to “fix” everything and everybody, whether that is a problem their child is having, or the bad day their spouse had, or a grumpy boss they always feel on edge around.

News flash: You cannot and should not “fix” anybody but yourself.

I think a huge disservice quick “how-to” lists are doing is not taking into account that the empathetic person reads it and somehow interprets that they aren’t doing enough. Caregivers often fall into this category as do older siblings who help take care of younger ones and children who believe they have to fill the responsibility gap when a parent leaves due to divorce, etc. These kinds of real-life situations exist, and I have yet to read in any rehash media article that empathizing with another person is never meant to indicate you are at all responsible for taking that stress upon yourself – something that empaths are notoriously guilty of and don’t know how to cease from doing.

Part of self-awareness and control is the learned ability to maintain boundaries around your own emotions and values so that you are not adversely affected by the whims and chaos you may sense around you. After all, how can you maintain your own composure and professionalism in your business life if in your personal life you understand “empathize” as a mandate to react to or fix what you sense amiss in someone else?

Helping people understand that it’s okay to say “No” and have personal boundaries for healthy interactions with each other has been both challenging and rewarding.

At the end of last week’s discussion, I offered someone a little advice on how to thwart a contrary person by not getting sucked into the argument. I hope that as we work on understanding how to develop our own emotional intelligence in the workplace (and everywhere else), my take on “empathy” might be helpful to someone: empathy is a tool which we must learn skills to properly use, and is not to be confused with caring, which is innate to human nature.

For those logical-reasoning “Mr. Spock” folks: empathy is the learned skill of objectively observing a subjective situation and using discernment to nonjudgmentally interpret what you observe or sense without allowing it to overwhelm or distract you so that you might respond with acknowledgement and respect for the humanity of the person it came from.


Cherry, K. (May 10, 2018). Utilizing emotional intelligence in the workplace: 5 ways to become more emotionally intelligent at work. VeryWellMind.com. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/utilizing-emotional-intelligence-in-the-workplace-4164713

Kotsou, I., Nelis, D., Grégoire, J., & Mikolajczak, M. (2011). Emotional plasticity: Conditions and effects of improving emotional competence in adulthood. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(4), 827-839. Retrieved from: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-06123-001?doi=1

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