Three Things That Can Block Our Empathy

Most of us would like for others to understand, recognize, and share in our feelings, and it can be demoralizing, lonely and painful to experience another person’s lack of empathy. In business, this can affect employees, and can also lead to a poor understanding about what customers might need or want. 

So how do we get closer to the empathy that makes the world an easier place, and helps our businesses work more smoothly inside and out?

 For a start, we can look at what blocks the natural empathy inside us. 

Lack of empathy can be the result of exhaustion, distraction, or stress. But a few common roadblocks to empathy trip people up even when they are feeling great. I have found that paying attention to such roadblocks has helped me become more empathetic in more situations, more of the time. 

Three common blocks: 

  • Judgement of others
  • Unconscious bias
  • Feeling defensive 

Judgement: It’s natural to jump in and make judgements of people when they are acting in ways we disagree with. When we make up our mind this way, we can find it very difficult to empathize with these people when they are in pain. We may even think they brought it on themselves. 

Solution: Try to neutralize your judgement before you react to the other person’s feelings. Can you give the person the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are trying their best? Can you possibly find something good about that person and remember your shared humanity?

Unconscious bias: When we have unconscious stereotypes about individuals from other social or identity groups, whether based on age, gender/gender identity, religion, race or ethnicity, or some other grouping, we are less likely to be able to put ourselves into their shoes. 

Solution: Organizations and individuals should take steps to overcome unconscious bias. As individuals, we can pay closer attention to how and when we generalize about people. Finding ways to be connected with people of different ages, backgrounds, and other groupings that seem dissimilar to us can also help dispel that bias. If you lack empathy for someone, consider whether a bias may be blocking you.

Defensiveness: When responding to a person who is sharing their feelings and also asking us to change, it can be particularly hard to feel empathy rather than defensiveness. Even when a person’s feelings are not directly about us, we may sense a criticism and/or a threat to our strongly-held beliefs. We go into fight or flight mode, moving out of empathy and taking it personally versus seeing the other’s feelings as a chance to broaden our viewpoint.

Solution: When we are feeling defensive in a conversation, we can take it as a signal to lean in to the conversation, be curious and inquire: “Tell me more,” “What is happening?” “How are you feeling? “Is there anything you are wanting?” After listening, we can validate and acknowledge what we heard. 

What short-circuits your ability to be empathetic?

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