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The Empathy Paradox – Are We Really Helping?

Most of us enter conversations and even casual encounters with the desire and intent to connect. We are, after all, social creatures. Social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman has conducted neuroscientific research that points to the hardwired need for human connection. Lieberman’s findings indicate that social pain – that feeling of heartbreak and rejection – is located in the same part of the brain that houses physical pain. He posits that Maslow got it wrong – love and belonging are the most important of all human needs.

And what better way for us to connect than through empathy? To fully listen and understand someone who has a problem, is in need, or hurting in some way; or to just lend an empathetic ear? It’s especially important during this current social climate – with anxiety and stress running at an all-time high.

Empathy means many things to many people. But as a key Emotional Intelligence skill, it is often misunderstood. Empathy is so much more than feeling bad for someone and telling them so. The technical definition of empathy is, “Recognizing, understanding and appreciating how other people feel. Empathy involves being able to articulate your understanding of another’s perspective and behaving in a way that respects others’ feelings.” (Mulit-Health Systems, EQ-I® 2.0).

In fact, renowned social science researcher, Brene Brown, in a funny and lighthearted animated short, distinguishes empathy from sympathy.  Active Empathy, the act of powerfully stepping into someone else’s shoes, (Pearman, et. al, The People Skills Handbook), has the potential to evolve a personal and meaningful connection. Empathy requires a genuine concern for, and interest in, the other person and how they may be feeling or struggling.

As we reach out to connect with others, we may be missing the mark. Sometimes, unwittingly, when we are trying to help, we can look like a know-it-all, or we might put ourselves in a position of power-over another, simply from our tone or how we choose to respond.

Here’s an example: The other day on a Zoom call, I was feeling particularly stressed, and casually mentioned my feelings to an acquaintance. He suggested I, “…take a more positive attitude, be more grateful, and that I should take time to enjoy my surroundings and sit outside in the sunshine to ‘chill out’.” He followed up with a note which read, “Take it from me, it took me 60 some years to learn how to de-stress and it is worth the effort.”

I was immediately put-off. I felt offended, defensive and ready for a fight. Did he not know that I strive, every single day to sharpen my self-understanding and reduce my feelings of anxiety and stress? Isn’t everyone feeling anxious and stressed these days? Maybe this current climate is not stressing him out at all – he must be in denial? What did he know of my personal situation, or of my stress reduction practices? It seemed to me that he was making some assumptions about me, and my ability to manage myself.

Upon reflection I realized I had been making things up about his assumptions. I venture to guess that he was doing the same when he tried to provide me with support. I appreciated that he had the best of intentions, and was truly attempting to help. I stopped myself from going down the rabbit hole of negative judgment, finding space to build back trust and appreciation for his efforts to help me to feel better.

Our failure to see when we might be causing another to become defensive, is paradoxically, the opposite of what we are seeking – connection through empathetic conversation.

That’s what happens in human relationships. We sabotage our own need for social connection by making things up about others and unconsciously moving into a space of distrust. The late, great, Judith Glaser called this tendency we have to automatically judge others, “Movies of the Mind” (Glaser, Conversational Intelligence). Glaser’s work, grounded in neuroscience, tells us that in order to create and maintain trusting relationships, those in which empathetic conversations thrive, we need to be mindful of our judgments and move to converse in a way that opens people up, rather than shuts them down. We need to listen to connect.

So how do we engage empathy – create space for someone to feel safe enough to share – without sabotaging the opportunity for true connection?

Here are three tips from the world of EQ and Conversational Intelligence to help you shore up your empathy skills:

  • Get in touch with your own emotions: Emotional Self-Awareness, another key Emotional Intelligence skill, is foundational for human connection. If you are mindful of your own emotional state in conversations – the emotions that you feel while you are conversing – you will position yourself to manage them in the moment. At the very least, you will be able to internally acknowledge them, name them, then move them to the side so they don’t interfere with what the other is saying (saving your review for later.) This helps to create a neutral zone for further discussion.
  • Override your initial judgments: Become a real-time, meta-observer of yourself in conversation. Acknowledge that judgments of the other are something that the brain does to protect us from threats (real or imagined). When negative judgments come up (and they will!) move them aside and re-focus on the person in front of you; tune into seeing the other person with more curiosity. Re-examine the reality of the situation, identifying judgments for which you have no evidence. Ask yourself some questions that will help you take a step back such as: “Am I unfairly judging this person? What assumptions am I making? Do I know if these assumptions are true? What am I missing here?” You might even attempt to check out your personal Movies of the Mind with the other person to dispel your made-up assumptions. Clearing the air during a discussion can move a conversation forward in a more positive manner.
  • Keep the conversation open: Resist the temptation to draw conclusions about the other by asking questions to which you don’t have answers. Avoid closed-ended, yes or no questions, in order to keep the conversation flowing. Move away from the tendency to impart unsolicited advice by removing the words “should” or “ought to” in your conversations. If you fall prey to the advice trap, ask what the other person thinks, or if it feels right to them. Encourage others to point out the fallacies in your thinking and inquire into whether the other person agrees or disagrees with your viewpoint.

These are just a few tips to build skill in becoming more empathetic; they can be difficult for all of us to employ. But, with practice, we can engage them to build our empathy muscles. In this world, at the current moment, we need empathy more than ever. We are all in situations every single day that are foreign, uncomfortable, anxiety producing and isolating. We need to bridge the divide of differences, on all levels.

Wouldn’t it be worth the effort to try?

Cindy Paris is the President and Founder of the People Skills Group, a company dedicated to helping people work better together. She uses Emotional Intelligence and Psychological Type as foundational tools for facilitating teams and leaders to establish Psychological Safety in the workplace. For more information about how The People Skills Group can help your team or organization, contact her at

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