Sick with Empathy: moving from a passive paradigm of empathy to an active one of Compassionate Leadership
Time to read: 20 mins.
Empathy has entered the buzz world universe of work theory in the past 10 years, surfing the general wave of popularization of self-reflective practices (like Yoga, breathing techniques, mindfulness) intended or promising to expand consciousness and well being at the individual level, while also improving social interactions and overall business performance.
Its general meaning is the capacity to join into and vicariously experience someone’s else emotional state.
As many concepts which made it to commercial application before appropriate acquisition and assimilation, the term suffers of misunderstandings and misapplication.
In practice, we can see how, when experiencing the other person’s distress, we may become confused, unable to gain clarity or prospective, or make decisions in a helpful way. Too much empathy and you cannot function, which leads ultimately some managers to even experience burn out. A 2016 study conducted by the University and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research of Poitiers on the relation between Empathy and Burn Out in Physicians (and the critical distinction between empathy and sympathy to which we will come briefly) tells us that “physicians with over-exaggerated empathic abilities would have more chances to suffer from emotional exhaustion, leading to compassion fatigue and, then, burnout”.
“Physicians with over-exaggerated empathic abilities would have more chances to suffer from emotional exhaustion, leading to compassion fatigue and, then, burnout”.
This article intends to clarify the meaning of empathy and its relative terms, sympathy and compassion, their virtuous and non-virtuous applications, and provide some simple methods to enhance the practice of compassionate leadership, as opposed to promote empathic overwhelm.
A Passionate Family: Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion
The terms empathy, sympathy and compassion all rotate around the same noun root, πάθος, pathos (affection, feeling) declined in the verb πάσχειν "paschein", literally meaning “suffering”, or “being emotionally moved”. A common derivative used today is the word Passion. Already in its original language pathos had its antinomy in the word Logos (ordered reason, articulation), today found in “logical”, “law”, the capacity of our human minds to make sense of reality and be able to see and comprehend it. These 2 forces, pathos and logos, primordial and opposite, one moving and the other composing, regulate the human experience, from a Dyonisiac to an Apollinean one: when harmonized they give rise to sublimity in humans arts and sciences.
Let’s have a look at how empathy, sympathy and compassion developed from pathos:
Empathy = “I feel inside you” from the Greek en-pathos – “en” stands for “inside”, meaning being immersed in the inner life of the other.
Sympathy = “I feel with you” from the Greek sym-patheia – “sym” means “with”, indicates the capacity to feel with the other, along with them, as we understand their circumstances. Interestingly, the term was born within the art of Greek theatre, and it referred to the capacity of moving the audience to feel along the theatrical representations of the actors.
Compassion = “I take part in your suffering” from the Latin cum-patior. Here there is participation in the feeling of the other but it takes the connotation of action, of being willing to partecipate with help.
It is clear that when exercising empathy our self-perception blurs, as we identify completely with the other. Science helps us understanding what this “complete identification” entails and why, while it is one of the primary factors which have preserved and accelerated our evolution as a specie, its arousal might be very confusing and not always conducive of positive outcomes.
3 Types of Empathy
To maintain only the most common term, empathy, but then decline it more orderly, psychology distinguishes between 3 types of empathy, very different from each other and which involve very distinct human faculties:
Cognitive Empathy is an intellectual faculty, that expresses itself in the abstract capacity to understand why a person feels the way they do. It is also defined as “perspective taking” as it looks at the individual slightly from afar, in her context and relations, to understand how she may feel. It is a faculty that can be found also in antisocial personalities (including psychopaths) as it does not require a sharing of the emotional content, but the necessary intellectual skill to take perspective about the circumstances of the other (e.g. John had a car accident and is shocked. Anne never had an accident nor feels any personal reaction to John’s feelings, but she has the ability to understand why after an accident John would feel distressed).
Emotional Empathy is the vanilla empathy, an emotional and somatic response to the emotions of the other, that can take place spontaneously, without the intervention of will and intellect. It spans from very basic experiences, like body mimicry (mirroring the body language of our interlocutors even without realizing) and emotional contagion (laughter spreading hysterically in a theatre even when not everyone got the joke, or yawning) to more complex ones (experiencing mental and physical distress for a length of time after hearing of the sorrows of another – e.g. John had a car accident and is shocked. Anne can’t stop thinking about him and how terrible it must have been, she talks about it with family and friend, and she even started feeling nervous when driving herself).
Compassionate Empathy is the deal of our pursue, what we should try to develop in ourselves and others. It is the capacity to be sufficiently cognitively skilled to understand the pain of others and the circumstances that led to it, and to be emotionally capable of resonating to a lesser or greater extent with their actual feelings (negative AND positive) and, as a result of this understanding and resonance, take resolute action to alleviate the suffering or enhance the well being of the other.
This capacity requires knowledge, experience, reflection and action (e.g. John had a car accident and is shocked. Anne knows that the experience can lead to a long lasting trauma: she offers John to car pool with him to work for a few days, so he regains fast the trust and pleasure to get into a car, and she gives him the contact of a trauma therapist to work on the aftermath of his experience, if he wants).
M.G. Testa is an Executive, Mentor and Advisor. She lives in Amsterdam, leading organisations and people in transition since 1998. You can reach her here.