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How to Help Yourself Move Forward If Your Heart Is Being Paralyzed by Empathy

The other day I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen for a while. As she started telling me about a recent family tragedy, her eyes welled up with tears, and mine immediately did the same. We stood together for a few minutes, both of us crying, feeling deeply connected even though we aren’t close friends, don’t stay in touch, and aren’t part of each other’s first line of defense against life’s challenges. 

After that moment of empathetic connection, I felt sad and somewhat helpless. That’s the problem with empathy. It means effectively experiencing what another is experiencing, usually through the firing of mirror neurons rather than through lived experience. I think that’s what happened to me with my colleague the other day. I didn’t just feel terrible for her and her painful situation—I felt her feelings and mirrored her response by crying when she cried.

The Dangers of Being Swamped by Your Feelings

Part of being a good leader—and a good human being—is caring about the joys and troubles of your colleagues, whether they’re your peers or they work above or below you. But when you’re feeling another person’s feelings, it can be hard to provide them with actual help or more than what they can do for themselves. They may feel cared about and grateful that you’ve recognized and validated their suffering, but their actual situation won’t change for the better just because you’re empathizing. And your empathizing with them can make you feel stuck, helpless, or hopeless too.

Translate this into a workplace situation. If a leader were to feel great unhappiness every time they interacted with an unhappy team member or frustration whenever they worked with someone who’s frustrated, their getting sucked into the same emotional state as their colleague could deter them from thinking as clearly as they would if they’d remained interested but neutral. 

Empathizing can put a leader at risk of kneejerk, reflexive actions—“Let me take care of this for you”—rather than inspiring the leader to guide a team member through solving their difficulties themselves. Or a leader might be outraged over someone upsetting their team member unnecessarily, and therefore try to discipline or punish that person without finding out the specifics of the situation. These ill-considered actions could lead to interpersonal or even organizational harm if the leader doesn’t have the time or mental energy to think them through.

Turn Your Feelings into Questions

A more effective approach for a leader is to continue to be tender-hearted, while also being tough-minded. Tough-mindedness helps you see what will make a positive difference in a given situation and keeps the welfare of the rest of the team and organization at the forefront. Instead of merely reacting along with the other person, try getting more information by asking thoughtful questions: “I was wondering what you thought might help you reset and move forward? Is there support I/we can provide? Are there resources you need?” 

Questions like these can help shift both the other person and yourself into a pragmatic action mode, so you can begin addressing existing issues and try to prevent new ones. Thinking about why the other person might be having an emotional reaction can also help you ask even more targeted questions after acknowledging their state of mind: “I can see that this is very upsetting to you. Have you had the chance to think about the kind of help you might need, and whether that’s something I can work on with you?”

Connect Your Heart and Mind

If you find yourself wondering or worrying about the other person, it makes sense to verify what’s going on. It’s not helpful simply to think about them—that’s actually equivalent to being a bystander in a crowd. So be careful not to make assumptions—you need to check everything you’re thinking with the other person. And don’t take significant action without confirming whether that action will, indeed, improve the other person’s situation. 

But if you can feel your feelings with your tender heart in response to someone else’s hard time, and then use your tough mind to assess what’s actually going on, you can both express your reaction and behave responsibly. Being tender-hearted and tough-minded allows you to move beyond empathy to compassion, which means you’re likely to get more done on behalf of both the individual and the organization. 

Onward and upward —

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