Empathy is defined as understanding what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference. Empathy is more than mere understanding; requiring more of a cognitive connection between two people or a group. Empathy is a very valuable concept because it forms a basis for trust, enables communication and possibly facilitates the development of altruism. However, poorly practiced empathy can lead to problematic behaviors. The first is reinforcing boundaries and defining outsiders, which makes it hard to teams of teams to interact. Secondly is misapplied empathy when there is no basis of trust; the illusion of empathy can be perceived as manipulation.
In order to understand what another person is experiencing it is important to have a basis to understand the other person. Establishing that connection or rapport with another person requires recognizing a common point from which empathy can be built. Intergroup bias, a common cognitive bias, motivates members of a group to preferentially recognize and establish rapport with other members of the group and to reject those outside the team. Empathy can exist within the team, but not outside the team. This can sometimes generate fundamental attribution errors (outsiders are branded with a negative attribute, such as being lazy or mean) attributed to those outside of the team. Empathy often follows personal biases and can reinforce us-vs.-them relationships.
True empathy might be impossible. The ability to understand and share feelings with another is at best imperfect. In a recent discussion, one of my colleagues suggested that since we had all experienced emotional pain of one sort or another we should be able to be empathetic to anyone else in pain. I understand the point they were making, but that point reinforces that all empathy is imperfect. Each person’s experiences are different as is their ability to communicate and experience or belief making it difficult or impossible to establish full empathy. The degree of imperfection is directly inverse to the amount of empathy between any two people. For example, I do not think the emotional pain of watching the Cleveland Browns lose has enough equivalence to establish an empathetic link with a person fighting for their job or losing a loved one. There needs to be some equivalence in the experience or belief that is being used to establish empathy and understanding. Empathy built on a mismatch can easily be construed as manipulation when discovered, even if that was not the intent. Because empathy is always built on an imperfect base, everyone in the empathic relationship needs to continuously test the relationship by asking questions and truly listening to the answer.
On Thanksgiving, I participated in a Turkey Trot (a short foot race help to celebrate the holiday). Somewhere in the middle of the run I became aware that was running behind two young women that, at least on the surface, could have been sisters. However, their interaction indicated that they did not seem to know each other outside of the run. The two women had come together on the course through a bit of serendipity. They shared several common attributes. Similarities included being runners that were of similar builds and ages and wearing a college logo on their running shirts. As most runners will tell you, sometimes when people come together in the middle of the race they talk to each other. In this case one of the runners announced that she was tiring, the other indicated that she had had similar problems in other races and suggested that relaxing her arms and core. The semi-quizzical look she got elicited a further statement that she ran cross country thus proving her qualification to give advice. The good-natured conversation continued for a quarter of a mile before our little group drifted away from each other.
The two runners in the Turkey Trot formed a brief bond based on common experiences and attributes. Whether there was perfect empathy in this situation is difficult to know. However the level of risk and the amount of trust needed to provide a bit of advice and companionship was low, therefore the experience they shared was enough for one to show empathy to the other. Empathy is a crucial tool for a coach, leader or team member to help ensure a team stays at peak performance if used well. Too much empathy can lead boundaries that affect interactions outside the group or team while empathy built on a false premise can be construed as manipulation. Everyone practicing need to continually evaluate the health of the relationship by observing, asking and listening.