In the emotional stakes it is good to see empathy now playing a big part and yet there are cautionary points to be made. Just because you empathise with someone doesn’t mean you do what they want, but it can play a powerful part in building bonds and connections and in influence.
In the last US Presidential election Obama was able to make great play of his opponent’s perceived lack of empathy. For example he was able to portray Romney as uncaring with regard to the alleged 47% of the population who he said was government-dependent. Thus whether you are empathic (“I feel your pain”) can make a difference in how you are perceived and impact how you deal with situations and people.
As this blog has pointed out in numerous articles, empathy is a key factor in emotional intelligence and thus in your ability to build relationships and influence people. However, it is not enough to simply empathise with another. You also need to act appropriately on the data received. As you can read on the above link, there’s plenty of evidence of people getting another’s perspective but then not responding as one might expect, for example compassion not being aroused and a different course of action being followed that might well not serve the interests of the one with whom you might experience empathy.
Thus alongside empathy needs also to go a set of values, principles for action, that guide one’s choices. One might have concern for the suffering of others but instead of a government bail-out one might advocate the dismantling of state aid as an action more likely to serve the interests of the sufferers. One group of people may hold different value sets to another. Then again, having empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. “I feel your pain” can mean being caught up in another’s stuff, whereas the effective use of empathy is to attempt to understand another’s perspective but not to be so caught up. In other words it needs not to cloud one’s judgement. This is an attribute observed in well-trained counsellors and psychotherapists. Having empathy can give you more choices and can potentially enable you to respond to others in ways that shows awareness of their perspective and that you have taken account of it. But it can still mean you can take tough decisions when you need to.
A powerful way this can be seen is when a person, for example, devotes time to hearing someone’s perspective, and showing they have genuinely heard, such that the speaker really feels “heard”. Even though the decision may not go the way the speaker might have hoped, the fact that they got to put their position and felt heard makes a difference. Yet along with that there is also the decision made and whether it was fair and reasonable. Hence, even with the display of empathy, other principles come into play.
Thus empathy can play a powerful part in the skill-set of the self aware, emotionally intelligent person, but they should not let it divert them from trusting their judgement and taking what they genuinely believe, according to their well-tested values, is the appropriate course of action.