Why you need to practice empathy in moderation

by | Dec 5, 2016 | Blog | 0 comments

2-wine-glassesMy losing essay for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) long ago advocated the benefits of all things in moderation.

Self-control — but not abstinence – was essential for drinking wine and beer, as well as caffeine, soda, and milk. Not surprisingly, considering the contest sponsorship, the women judges rejected my point of view.

Moderation makes sense though, not just in beverages but in all aspects of life, including emotions.

Empathy is now under attack, judging by the recent Wall Street Journal essay, The Perils of Empathy, and new book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” both by Dr. Paul Bloom of Yale University.

Empathy deserves defending, especially when it’s in moderation and done thoughtfully and carefully.  

As background, we’re born with the ability to understand and share others’ emotions. (See my August blog post 3 ways to be empathetic and powerful.)  In its broadest sense, empathy, according to the medical dictionary, is the “the intellectual and emotional awareness and understanding of another person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior.”

However, not everyone practices empathy. Picture a close relative of Scrooge.

On the other extreme, some people are so empathetic (generally in specific situations) that they cause problems for themselves and others, which is one of Dr. Bloom’s points.

For example, research and experience continue to show that when individuals are extremely empathetic toward those in their in-group, they can become fiercely loyal. This loyalty can have adverse effects.

Loyalists may turn a blind eye toward bad or unethical behavior within their group. (That’s why it’s no surprise that whistleblowers tend to come from outside the organization. Remember Harry Markopolos who was the first to see through Bernie Madoff?)

Or, individuals may be exclusively empathetic only to their tribe. These loyalists tend to lash out and be cruel to others who are different from them and their group. (Think of your peer in another function who protects his or her people no matter what they do — or don’t do.)

Rather than attack or bar empathy, how about taking a more prudent approach?

Let’s acknowledge that empathy can be a two-edged sword.

That’s what the panelists at our “The Neuroscience of Ethics & Values” session at last month’s 2016 NeuroLeadership Summit did.

On the one hand, they explained that leaders and others who are empathetic are more sensitive to others and their needs. In their comments, the panelists agreed with the point of view of researcher and author Dacher Keltner that empathetic leaders are more easily able to earn the respect of others, which makes them more influential and powerful.

On the other hand, though, too much empathy, especially directed toward an in-group, can transmute into perverse goal setting, malleable values and ethics, and other types of bad behavior.

For more about this, check out the Harvard Business Review article The Limits of Empathy by Adam Waytz, who was one of the NeuroLeadership Summit panelists.

Meanwhile, how about trying to avoid the extremes? And while you’re balancing, try to lighten things up and not take everything so seriously.

Humor makes life so much more palatable. Consider Willard Residential Hall, my Northwestern University dorm named after Frances Willard, one of the WCTU’s co-founders and the university’s first dean of women in the 1870s.

When I lived there, we celebrated her birthday every year with a party that featured a different mixed drink served on each floor. Yes, she may have been turning over in her grave, but many of us remember her fondly for her entire career, including leading the movement for women to vote.

Here’s a toast to humor, empathy, and compassion all in moderation!

Will you join me?


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