There is a big lie in our society about empathy. That lie? Good people have no problem expressing empathy to others.
Effective empathy is not a character trait and it isn’t a metric of inherent decency. Wanting to express empathy – the desire to help others feel cared about and seen – is an attribute of kind people, but the actual ability to do that is a skill. A skill you can learn and one that is sometimes blocked by circumstances and relationships.
There are actually seven barriers to effectively expressing empathy (and none of them have to do with our kind or good you are) and the one I want to talk with you about today is connection. Ready for a radical truth?
The more connected you are to someone, the harder it can be to effectively express empathy to them.
This is because that connection means their experiences cause emotions of your own. Imagine that you are a tree, planted pretty close to another tree. You shade each other, protect each other from the wind sometimes and experience the same weather patterns. As you grow near each other your roots become entwined. You’re drawing from the same water, the same soil, what effects them effects you.
Empathy is much easier to express when you have just a little distance from the person or the situation. When their screw up at work doesn’t put your company in danger. When their argument with a family member an argument with a member of your family. When their sick day doesn’t pile more work on your desk. When their disappointment doesn’t hurt your heart.
And these people – the ones we work with, live with, love… they’re the ones we most often want to be empathetic towards. So what’s the answer?
Spread out your roots. Cultivate the roots that aren’t entertwined with your staff, with your family, with your partner. When you can draw from the roots on the other side of you from the person who is suffering, get your support and fresh perspective on the opposite side of your tree, you’ll be much better able to come back to that person with whom you are tightly woven and be of use to them… without ignoring your own feelings.
Is there a situation or a person in your life who could use your empathy right now? Are you struggling to get your own needs met and still be there for them? Comment and tell me. I can take care of one of your roots!
All my best,