Empathy. That Word Does Not Mean...

skeletal 601213 640...what you think it does. 

I've been reading articles lately about empathy in the workplace, so I'm offering my kaleidoscope lens on this topic. Empathy is not really about being kind and generous to people, or trying to consider their feelings when communicating with or making decisions about them.

Empathy is rooted in narcissism. Well, one, particular "developmental narcissism," might be a more accurate way to describe egocentrism.

We were each programmed to develop empathy between birth and three years of age. Perhaps you find it counterintuitive that this period is marked by an absolute certainty that you are the center of everything. Back then, you were the sun in your universe. All revolved around you. Everyone's decisions were for your benefit. Nobody was more important than you. 

This is not just you, or not just a "terrible" two-year-old you happen to know. This was true for each and every one of us. This is a developmental stage known as egocentrism. When it persists into adulthood, psychologists call it, at best, projection, and, at worst, narcissism and sociopathy. Most of us do a fair amount of the "at best" version.

So, how is empathy born from this place of pure narcissism, originally? And what can managers do to help team members with a do-over of this important developmental transition, if it seems they missed the end product?

First question first: egocentrism is deisigned to unfold into a clear sense of self, defined by the answers to the question Who am I? One short list of answers might be: what I need, how I feel, and what I want. These three broad categories encompass many of the ways we define who we are. We are all meant to come to an understanding of this personal identity, in the transition following the greatest shock of our young lives.

From birth we believe we are the center of the universe. Then, at around 2 to 2-1/2 years of age, we suddenly understand that the people around us do not instantly share our thoughts, feelings, and wants. In fact, they have their own. In fact, sometimes theirs disagree with and conflict with ours. This shocking awareness becomes the original relationship betrayal in our lives. It's a wound that can positively transform us, if we get the support we need from adults during this stage of development, resulting in healthy boundaries and a solid sense of identity. The result is: I know who I am. I know what I need, feel, and want. 

Which then begs the question, who are you? As an adult in any workplace, I can't be in a relationship of any kind with you, let alone an empathetic one, if I don't have a self that I understand is different from you. In fact, I don't have any interest in or need for learning how to navigate in healthy relationships, as long as I believe that we are all "one" with the same needs, feelings, and longings -- mine, of course!

Empathy is only possible with healthy boundaries. Relationships are between two beings. If we're both the same, then we don't need to relate. This statement seems obvious, but how many times have you seen or heard evidence that those around you don't hold this basic understanding of relationships? "If you really cared about me, you'd know how I feel," is perhaps the best known version. A better workplace example is a direct report saying, "I thought you knew how important that assignment was to me," to the supervisor who is silently thinking, No, because you never mentioned it to me.

The physical boundary of skin separates our bodies and some emotional, mental, and psychological boundaries should separate us, too. Unfortunately for many people, their additional three "skins" either don't exist or have big holes in them. If we got the right support as toddlers, we are now adults with healthy boundaries fully capable of empathy. If not...it's never too late to try, try again.

Now, the second question. This developmental do-over takes some time and effort. The defenses that build up to protect unhealthy boundaries make this a paradigm shift that we, the defensive, resist mightily. The number one tool for unlocking someone's hold on egocentrism is to Question Reality. Yes, the moral of the story from "The Emperor's New Clothes" is our best guide to healthy boundaries.

Egocentrism cannot survive in a climate of curiosity! Modern tools for questioning reality begin with an understanding of how our brains operate, in relation to what we think of as reality. Once we become aware of how much we each shape our own, unique reality, empathy becomes possible when we become curious about how others experience reality differently from us. Fostering ego-awareness and empathy in the workplace becomes a continuous exercise in curiosity -- who are we talking about? how do we know that? what assumptions are we making? who is the "they" in that sentence? what do you mean by _____?

THAT is what empathy looks like in the workplace. It is exactly the opposite of a toddler's egocentrism of assuming I am Karnak, who knows and feels all -- on behalf of all of us! It's also exactly the opposite of the faux empathy of "being nice" to each other.

You see, there is still a high volume of egocentrism (and a fair amount of hubris) in assuming I know what you will perceive as "nice," without asking you first. 


My book, Just Be Your S.E.L.F.* -- Your Guide to Improving Any Relationship, will be published by September. Watch this page on my website for the opportunity to make an advance purchase!

(*Self-governed, Ego-aware, Leading in your life, and Free of self-imposed barriers)


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Dr. L. Carol Scott.

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