Empathy Is Not a Soft Skill
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
The word “empathy” communicates a kind of softness that belies its true nature. First and foremost, it is considered a “soft skill.” Its very designation in such a list of skills defined by their subordination to skills that matter most suggests that empathy is important for missionaries and social workers but not people in roles governed by science (doctors), or money (financial analysts), or who lead (corporate CEOs). A conversation with my dad, who is a retired Marine and Vietnam veteran, perfectly illustrated this misconception: “Give me a nurse with empathy to change the bandage, but I will forego the empathy for the skill in my heart surgeon.” This is a great example of how empathy is misunderstood: as a soft skill that advances my comfort and not my actual health, empathy is something that is nice to have, but not necessary. An international financier I once spoke with about empathy had a similar perspective: he maintained that if his bosses had empathy, they’d never be successful. It is in their lack of feeling and even antipathy for others that they are able to accumulate great wealth, even at the expense of others.
When I told a trusted colleague I wanted to research the role of empathy in the relationships between urban high school students (usually students of color) and their teachers (often White), his response was blunt and immediate: “urban kids don’t need your empathy.” My goal was to see how students perceived their teachers, from a relational perspective, and examine that perception in relation to short- and long-term outcomes. But for a Black man hearing this from a White woman, the whole thing just came off as offensive. We don’t need your empathy—we are just fine, thank you. I get it. Empathy is conflated with related, but wholly different concepts: sympathy, compassion, pity. All of these sentiments are rife with images of a hand up or a hand out or some sort of hand, doing something, to bridge a gap in power. These are not feelings that require understanding and are often fueled by misunderstanding. These are not feelings that bridge gaps but further entrench them.
Given all these misconceptions, it is no wonder empathy more readily resonates with people who already consider themselves highly empathic. As yogis and meditators rejoice over the prevalence of mindfulness in the media, so, too, do self-proclaimed empaths own the idea that empathy is what’s needed in the world today. But I am afraid that the true meaning of empathy, with all its hard edges and not very soft skill impact, is not that which people usually think. Although empathy may conjure images of kinder, gentler leaders, eager listeners, and compassionate providers, the truth is there is a whole segment of our society effectively using empathy who are not kinder or gentler, but are worth examining. Some of the most powerful models of empathy are our hotly contested leader of the free world, cult leaders, and psychopaths. Hitler and his team demonstrated significant empathy for the people they sought to mobilize and used that understanding to make people do and support terrible things they wouldn’t have otherwise done. Jim Jones successfully led a mass murder-suicide of 918 people in 1978. This required him to empathize with his followers in such a way that he could anticipate what they needed to hear and use that to manipulate their own free will. This type of manipulation is the very, very dark side of what empathy can do. The power to fully put yourself in the shoes of another and share their feeling does not always mean you do the right thing with that information. Paul Bloom touches on this in Against Empathy. His example of the study participants who would give a non-profit’s funding inequitably to those with whom they empathize rather than to the most needy is a powerful example of how empathy can drive less than ideal outcomes. And while fully actualized people do make decisions that are compassionate and ethical, the idea is that empathy gives you the power to engage others in action. When you can fully immerse yourself in the context and experience of another with the goal of sharing their feeling, you are demonstrating empathy. What you do next with that information is matter of ethics (or reason, if you are following Bloom).
Another misconception about empathy, which is the most frequent response when I discuss it with people, is that many of us are empaths, and we are just exhausted by all that caring about people. In service of this premise, folks have told me about meditations to limit empathy, people so overwhelmed by their empathy that their function is impeded, and chronic empathy as the impetus for physical and emotional maladies. There is no question that some are more naturally attuned to the feelings of others, and as someone who has studied empathy in great detail, I count myself amongst those. I do often notice how the cashier is feeling when he rings up my groceries, I engage interpersonally with my mail carrier to such a degree that I know what brand of sheets she uses, the year of her pop-up camper, and her routine when she is feeling sick. If my cashier or mail carrier are feeling blue, I can sense this, and I feel for them (sympathy). If am so in tune with the feelings of people around me, I may even share their feeling. But if you are tuned into those around you enough to perceive (or think you have perceived) their emotional state and then feel that same feeling, is that empathy?
Emotional contagion is a phenomena wherein our own behaviors and moods are triggered by those of others around us. Elaine Hatfield is considered one of the authorities on emotional contagion. In a paper first published in 1994, she and a therapist colleague sought to explore their own experiences with emotional contagion, wherein they physically experienced the emotions of another because of the cues (facial, postural, or verbal) they were interpreting. She found that when one sees the body language and facial expressions and hears the tone of voice of another, s/he may “catch” that same feeling as the brain processes it on a subconscious level. She also found that some people are more likely to “catch feelings” from others, depending on a number of factors about their own habits and interpersonal engagement. One study showed that people who self-identify as having power over others are less likely to “catch” the emotions of others; whereas those who self-identify as powerless or not in positions of power are more susceptible to emotional contagion. They conducted research that supported the hypothesis that those in a position of being led or directed by others are more susceptible to emotional contagion as a means of pleasing superiors or those they perceive as more powerful. This habit of “catching feelings” then spills over into other interactions, regardless of the power dynamics at play.
Research on the universality of emotional conveyance through facial expression also supports the premise of emotional contagion. Paul Enkman (check him out here) who studies facial expressions and founded the concept of micro-expressions (which last 1/25 of a second and are perceived on an often unconscious level), found that at least seven of the most common emotion are universal and their expressions are made by all people in all cultures. These emotions are happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, contempt, and surprise. From the completely isolated tribes of Papua, New Guinea to the president of the United States, all people engage the same facial expressions for these seven emotions (the hundreds of other emotions studied by Enkman may be revealed in other subtly different expressions). But like Hatfield, Enkman found that if you create the expression of a particular emotion with your face, and engage all the appropriate muscles to that expression of emotion, your brain is tricked into believing you feel that emotion. That old adage to just “put on a happy face” isn’t completely true—it is challenging to fully engage your facial muscles into a specific emotion you don’t feel, but because these muscle engagements are consistent across people and cultures, if you do it accurately, you can actually adopt that emotion.
Empathy is not emotional contagion. Although you can manipulate your face into experiencing the same emotion as your cashier, or you may feel anxious in a conversation with a colleague because he feels anxious and you are subconsciously reading it in his facial expressions (the impetus for Hatfield’s research), “catching a feeling” does not require you to really understand the context or interpretation of the situation that led to this feeling. That is empathy. Understanding enough about someone to really share their feeling does not require you to have been in the same situation or have the same context, but it does require you to know enough about why they feel that way to conceive of it, and not just “catch” it. For this reason, I think true empaths are unicorns. There are a number of folks walking around very prone to emotional contagion, but they are not inherently more compassionate or kind or powerful, or even empathetic.
Empathy is widely misunderstood and critical. Because of the way it is misdefined and misapplied, it is dismissed as a soft skill, which belittles its power. Empathy is an evolutionary trait in homo sapiens, and it is a skill that can be grown. Active listening, mindfulness, learning about diverse peoples, facial expression study and recognition of non-verbal cues—all of these are categories of skill that can be developed and honed in service of greater empathy. I believe practices like mindfulness would be better received if we understood their power in our work and effectiveness. I believe skills like empathy would be intentionally grown if we truly understood how it created space for change. Look at some of the most powerful people in the world—not just your titled leaders, but your thought leaders—the people making change in their communities. The historical figures who really shook things up. In the study of any of them, you will see true capacity for empathy—skills that enabled them to connect with and mobilize the people they needed to take action. This is the work of true aspiring empaths.