How to Offer Empathy When It Feels Too Hard to Relate

How to Offer Empathy When It Feels Too Hard to Relate | Jennifer Spoelma

Empathy is one of those things we all want to extend just as much as we receive. It feels good when we connect on a meaningful level and offer support to someone. In an ideal world, we’d have a never-ending well of grace and patience and to offer others. We’d be able to handle all the tears, complaints and worries of our loved ones without feeling like we’re losing it ourselves.

Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. If you’re like me, you probably get annoyed, frustrated, depressed, concerned and overwhelmed after a certain level of ‘handling’ your own circumstances along with those of others.

I finally found a name for this feeling - it’s called ‘empathy burnout’. I can’t wait to tell you more about it, and, more importantly how to avoid it! But, first let’s take a look at the bigger discussion surrounding empathy and its role in work and life.

Why empathy is important in the workplace

Even in the workplace, empathy is good business. This has been proven true by many large, profitable companies (think Google) and research alike. One researcher stated that empathy, or the ability to relate to another’s experience by sharing their emotions, encourages others to “be as good as they can be”, which correlates highly with business profitability.

The trend for more empathetic leadership has already taken root in modern business culture. But our culture's collective conceptions of effective leadership haven't necessarily caught up. For example, when we think of a “boss”, we may still envision a person who is controlling, negative and critical--even if our own experiences with supervisors have been positive.

In fact, women may be the natural leaders when it comes to demonstrating empathy in business. A study by M.I.T. found that the most successful teams were those who excelled at reading the emotions of others, even when the team members were working remotely. The teams that demonstrated these skills were the teams with higher numbers of women.

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While women often feel more comfortable with empathy and relating to another person’s emotions, this is not a skill unique to women. Men can definitely possess and develop empathy, as well. Any person with a desire to improve their work and personal relationships can learn to practice empathy and experience the benefits.

What is 'empathy burnout' and how does it happen?

However, even the most naturally empathetic people can experience burnout with empathy. Our desire to demonstrate empathy can easily be overloaded by responsibilities, negativity, or our own internal struggles. Have you ever experienced one of these situations?

  • The nightly news is on in the background while you eat dinner with your family, but instead of listening to your child’s new joke, all you hear are grumblings about political arguments, mass murders, and corporate corruption.
  • You ask your co-worker about her weekend, and she begins to rant for five minutes straight about her ex-husband who is trying to ruin her life and destroying her happiness. She doesn’t even pause to give you a chance to respond.
  • An employee knocks on your office, but you impatiently hold up a finger and point to the phone pressed against your ear. You glance at the 14 tasks on your sticky note to-do list and the 137 unread emails in your work account, and wonder why someone would interrupt you now.

It can be hard to choose empathy in these moments, even for the best of us. While some people may naturally exhibit empathy, no one is immune to burnout. Sometimes, empathy requires effort.

A recent study by Schumann, Zaki, and Dweck (2014) addressed a nationwide concern about an “empathy deficit”, noting that both affective and cognitive measures of empathy have dropped by 30-40% in the past thirty years.

Why do we have a disconnect with empathy?

Cultural values have emphasized the concept of empathy as an innate trait, a quality that one either possesses or not. However, this research team suggested that a person’s mindset about empathy can dramatically influence his or her ability to develop empathy. What if, instead of assuming that it was “too hard” to feel empathy in a tough moment, you believed that you could handle the weight of another’s emotions by choosing empathy?

Schumann et al. defined empathic effort as “a willingness to invest time or energy in feeling empathy”. This means that, instead of shutting off the news in frustration, avoiding your negative co-worker, or blowing off an employee, you can choose to actively work towards empathy. When we feel overwhelmed or burned out, we may feel incapable of an empathetic response. But the findings of this study demonstrate that our very beliefs about empathy can determine our empathy levels.

If you believe that empathy is a fixed quality, either something you have or don’t, then you will be prone to emotional burnout in the very moment when empathy is needed. On the other hand, if you believe that empathy is a malleable trait that can be improved, you will be more likely to take the time for empathic effort.

What can we do to avoid empathy burnout?

The research by Schumann’s team utilized seven studies to compare people’s perspectives of empathy with the empathic effort they exerted in various situations. Participants were asked to self-report their attempts to feel empathy in different contexts, such as in challenging circumstances or with people who hold opposing political views. Views of empathy were considered as well, assessing the participants’ theories of empathy as either fixed or malleable. The researchers used the data collected to compare the empathic effort demonstrated by participants who held either a “fixed” or “malleable” theory of empathy.

The findings are encouraging. Based on the results of these studies, a person will demonstrate greater empathic effort in difficult situations if they believe that empathy is a modifiable trait that can be improved. Specifically, people with flexible beliefs about empathy presented with higher levels of empathy in moments of conflict and with people who are different. This means that your mindset about empathy affects your ability to practice empathy.

Empathy is an important skill for successful leadership, as well as basic human relationship. The next time you feel too stressed to respond empathetically when another volunteer asks you to cover their duties, consider your own beliefs about empathy. If you choose to view empathy as a changeable quality that can be developed, you may find an opportunity to exert a little effort and practice empathy by remembering the overwhelming pressure he must be feeling as he tries to navigate a career, a divorce, and an parent with cancer.

When you want to shut out your friend who won’t stop complaining about her mom’s manipulative phone calls, you may decide to recall past times in which you needed someone to listen to your own frustrations about your family members.

And if you find yourself angrily scrolling through social media and griping about your “friends” who post controversial political statements, you may choose to accept that they are only standing up for what they believe in.

What situations tend to lead you to empathy burnout? Imagine you had an endless supply of empathy to give towards that situation. How does that perspective change your feelings about the situation?