Why We Resist Empathy, and What to do Instead

by | Nov 18, 2020

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A few years ago I was on a project with a big rental car company and we were working with their team on how to connect with and communicate with their customers better. We were in a session and we were working through some scenarios and I was playing the role of the rental car agent. 

Well, one of the people in the class came up, and I started off the conversation by saying, “Hey, how are you doing today?” and *gasp* there was this collective gasp, sucking-in of air in the room, and I said, “What just happened? Why are you guys responding that way?”  

They said, “That question, you can’t ask that question.” 

They were reacting like I said something like, “So, how old are you and what do you weigh?” or something even more offensive than that.

And I said, “Well, all I said was ‘how’s it going, how are you doing,'” and they said, “Yeah, no, we have been told that we’re not allowed to ask that question.”  I thought, “Oh well, tell me more, why not?”

And they said, “Well, if we ask, and they tell us, then we have to deal with it. And we don’t have time to deal with it, we just need to get to renting the car.”

I remember thinking, “Oh, we’ve got bigger fish to fry than what we’re gonna be able to cover in this training class,” but that story and that moment brings me to where we are today when talking about empathy.

I think a lot of times we think, “Yes, I want to be empathetic, I want to lead with empathy,” but we resist it.  Today we’re going to work through three reasons why you, or we, may resist empathy and how to reframe them, and what to do instead. 

Reason number one goes back to that rental car situation. It’s too much work, we’ve got other things to do, we don’t really have time to get into all of this, “how you doing, how you feeling” stuff. We’ve got things to get to. 

Number two, the emotions. Empathy is about understanding feelings and oftentimes we think “Hey, I’m at capacity, I can’t take on someone else’s emotion. I can’t take on someone else’s feelings. It’s just too much right now.” 

Number three goes to the fix. Once I ask someone how they’re doing and they tell me, now I have to fix it. I have to take on that responsibility and make sure the problem is solved.

Those are the three reasons why we might resist leading and showing empathy. Now, let’s break them down a little bit and talk about how those perceptions really aren’t embracing what empathy truly is. 

Number one: we’ve got things to do. We’ve got work, we have other projects, we don’t have time for this. In my experience in what drives the work that I do, when we take the time to actually listen and understand and acknowledge people, a lot of those problems and a lot of that other work tends to go away. When we don’t do this, we are compiling the work on top of ourselves. 

Number two: the feeling part of it. This is a nuance, but something I want to be really clear about when it comes to empathy. When you are showing empathy, you are not taking on that feeling. If you’re having a conversation with someone, you can tell they’re frustrated, and they say, “Hey, you know what, I am really frustrated right now at this situation. We’ve been having the same conversation over and over again and we can’t seem to move the needle,” or whatever it is, you are not then saying “Hey, I’m really frustrated by this too. I’m up all night thinking about it,” and it becomes like an out frustration contest. No. That is not what empathy is.  What empathy is is understanding and acknowledging that feeling. It’s saying, “Hey, this person is frustrated. When I was frustrated, or a time I was frustrated, this is what I needed,” or “This is how I could have been supported.” It’s not taking on that feeling, it’s not getting in their shoes, it’s standing next to them and saying, “Okay, we’re on the frustration path, let’s figure out how we can move forward.” Or, “We’re on the anger path. I’ve been there before.” There’s a distinction between acknowledging that feeling and feeling what they’re feeling. When we take on feeling what everyone is feeling, that’s when the exhaustion sets in, but that’s not what you need to do. 

The third point, about the fix. They told me their frustration, they said what’s going on, now it’s my responsibility as a leader to fix the situation. I will now jump in and make sure that it’s all right. No. Fixing isn’t about empathy. Fixing is about being a martyr, fixing is about making ourselves feel good, and yeah, when you need to fix everything, you are taking on more work and more responsibility that isn’t yours to take on. When we talk about fixing something, it implies that something is broken. When we talk about empathy, we’re, implying that someone needs to be heard and they need to be understood. They’re not broken. They’re human.  When you think about it this way, that’s some of the effort that isn’t needed: the fixing, the taking on.

But empathy does require some effort. It sure does. It requires the effort of really listening, of staying present and curious, of staying out of judgment, of really understanding and believing that person’s experience: that is effort.  In my experience, that effort of truly acknowledging someone of, truly working to understand someone, of feeling heard, of feeling acknowledged, of feeling understood, that’s what we ground ourselves in, that’s the reward of that effort of empathy.

My question to you today is, do you find yourself ever resisting having conversations and leading with empathy? What about empathy do you find hard? Do you find challenging? What about empathy do you resist? Let me know in the comments. You can always email me at [email protected], and I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Until next time, we’ll talk to you soon.


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