Emotional Intelligence at Work: Why I’m Trying to be Less Empathetic

If you aren’t yet familiar with the concept of Emotional Intelligence (also known as emotional quotient or EQ), it’s probably time to take note. In his book Emotional Intelligence NY Times science writer David Colman argued that it wasn’t, as previously thought, IQ that guaranteed business success but EQ instead. He defined the four characteristics of EQ as being:

  1. good at understanding your own emotions (self-awareness)
  2. good at managing your emotions (self-management)
  3. empathetic to the emotional drives of other people (social awareness)
  4. good at handling other people’s emotions (social skills)

As the idea of emotional intelligence takes hold in the workplace, we’re increasingly likely to hear conversations about the core components described above. The one I hear, and see, people get most hung up on is empathy.

What exactly is empathy?

A seemingly common misunderstanding of the term lies in the difference between empathy and sympathy, with people often confusing the two. In a talk on the Power of Vulnerability, researcher Brené Brown does a great job at explaining the difference. She says: “Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy is I’m feeling with you. Sympathy, I’m feeling for you.” 

Brown goes on to explain that: “When we empathize, we don’t see that person as unlucky or someone who made poor choices in life, but rather a flawed individual like us. In other words, you put yourself in their position and try to connect by unearthing your similar experiences.”

Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy is I’m feeling with you. Sympathy, I’m feeling for you.

Brené Brown

And you’re saying that’s bad?!

I’m saying it’s more nuanced than we first think. I’m saying that you can be kind and compassionate and accept someone’s truth even if you don’t have shared experiences to draw upon.

In cases where you are able to feel another person’s feelings, it can be super useful in helping the two of you connect. At work, this could look like a shared frustration, for example. We’ve all been there; moaning about a pain in the ass point of contact or sharing your feelings about some critical feedback. When someone relates to your experience, it can help you to feel validated at a time where you’re struggling to validate your own feelings. Or maybe it just makes you feel seen or understood. Either way, it feels good. There’s huge amounts of relief in knowing someone else feels the same way as you. That you’re not alone; even when we’re at work. We’re all human after all.

That sounds entirely positive, so why are you trying to be less empathetic?

I’m not saying that people should be less empathetic per se. But I am saying that sometimes empathy is not necessarily possible. Sometimes empathy as we initially understand it (as trying to tap into similar feelings) can do more harm than good and, in these cases, we should replace it with something else.

Consider a conversation with a colleague who’s upset. Their experiences, and lens through which they view the world, are completely different from yours. Maybe they’re a different race, gender, sexuality to you. If you’ve never been subjected to, say, racism or homophobia, then you might need to accept that you can’t actually feel how that feels. You may not have any similar experiences to recall.

And that’s where the definition of empathy as ‘unearthing your similar experiences’ falls down for me.

What happens when you try to empathise but can’t?

I’ve both seen this happen, and experienced it first hand. 

I’m a 33-year-old woman in leadership. Sexism is a thing I’ve come up against again and again over the course of my career. And there have been times where I have felt worse as a result of sharing my experiences. Ironically, because those I’ve confided in have, with the purest intentions, tried to empathise. 

How does that happen? 

Well, it’s usually when the person I confide in cannot possibly understand how I feel in that moment. If you are a man, for example, how are you supposed to conjure up, in your imagination, a lifetime of being subjected to sexism in order to feel how I feel at that specific point in time? You might have an idea. But you won’t be able to really feel it. You don’t have similar experiences to call upon.

When we get hung up on the idea of being empathetic we might question someone’s experience in order to try to understand or relate. Can you picture a time where you’ve felt questioned in this way? For me it might look something like this (hypothetical) scenario:

Me: “I feel like that client wouldn’t listen to me because I’m a woman. He listened to you when you made the same point.

Male colleague: “Really? Because you’re a woman? Maybe but that guy’s talked over me before too so I know it feels crappy.

Despite the fact that my colleague is trying to empathise – by explaining that he’s felt the same at times – it doesn’t feel like I’ve been related to, which is what we’re told what empathy is ‘supposed’ to achieve. In fact, I could be left feeling misunderstood and doubting my own experience. Having experienced the same or similar words or actions isn’t the same as having been made to feel a particular way because of a lifetime of context.

So what do I do instead?

What I am absolutely not saying is that we should disregard experiences we can’t relate to. Quite the opposite actually. Instead of getting hung up on whether you can or can’t relate, be open to the possibility that you may not be able to, and recognise that all experiences should be given due consideration regardless.

In other words, just accept that the other person’s experience is their truth. If you’re busy trying to recall similar experiences (especially if you don’t have any), you’re in your head and, despite your best intentions, you’re actually getting further away from connecting to the other person’s experience. 

In the above scenario, accepting might sound like my colleague saying something like: “Really? Have you experienced that kind of thing before? That must really suck.” 

Note that this doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with their point of view. You just accept it as their truth. 

If you can do this, you can still find a way to fuel a connection by moving outside of your own experience and replacing empathy with compassion. If you can’t get to that compassionate place then you’re in danger of writing off them and/or their experience all together.

Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is a connection.

Brené Brown

I’m also not saying never try to understand other people’s perspectives. Doing that will help you be more compassionate – just don’t do it out loud, or in the moment at which someone is confiding in you. And don’t write people off if there is no way for you to relate to them. Their experience is valid, and worthy of compassion, whether you ‘get it’ or not. 

As Brené Brown says: “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is a connection.” So, if you can’t connect with empathy, then it might be better to find a way to connect with compassion instead.