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Posted by on Oct 28, 2010

Empathy for the Devil

There is a real problem with the word “empathy.”

Many people confuse it with “sympathy.” If you look up the words, there is some literal connection between them, but the difference between them is huge for leadership and individual effectiveness generally.

Everyone knows what sympathy is. It is a feeling, usually connected to another’s pain. It is literally feeling bad when another is feeling bad. You may feel sympathy for the victim of a crime, or some unfortunate event.

Empathy is quite different, and it is not so connected to emotion. It is more related to cognition. Empathy, set in the context of emotional intelligence, is the ability to see the perspective that another person has – to “get” where he or she is coming from. It’s simply to understand.

The easiest way to understand empathy is to remember a time when you had a disagreement with someone, particularly a significant one, where something important was on the line. It could have been a pitched political argument, for example. In this argument, were you able to temporarily suspend your own thoughts and perceptions and judgments, and really understand what the other person thought?

If you are like most people, this is the last place you go – usually after all your defenses, attacks, blaming, name-calling, and projections (more on this below) are done. The need to be right, to win, to prove the other person wrong usually trumps true understanding – empathy.

Less dramatically, empathy also means understanding others’ views in situations not so charged. How do employees feel about the latest reorganization? What is their take on the new team being formed? How do they feel about telework? Simply understanding their perceptions is empathy.

It also doesn’t mean you always agree with the other point of view. It doesn’t matter. As long as you get it, you’re demonstrating empathy. The Washington Post used to run an ad that touched on this – “If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.” It’s really true.

What about the Devil, referred to in the title of this blog?

In order to develop this, we need to understand something called projection. It is a psychological term that means projecting onto others parts of ourselves we don’t want to own. In Jungian terms, these are thoughts and feelings that reside primarily in the unconscious mind. We use that term because it means we aren’t conscious of them – we’re unaware of the real contents they hold.

For example, if you think about someone who “triggers” you, it can potentially open a big developmental door to ask this question: Is there anything in what you are reacting to that reminds you of anything in yourself?”

On a very simple level, think of how you drive. If you’re ever in a hurry, you may do things behind the wheel that you wouldn’t normally do; go faster, stretch the red-light margin. When you are not so rushed, and you see people do similar things you can become judgmental. The magnitude of the negative emotion is equal to the presence of that factor in you, probably in your unconscious mind. If you have no issues with any particular negative behavior, it usually signifies that you have no baggage there. You tend to be surprised, or curious as to why someone would do that, but it doesn’t set you off. It’s much more neutral.

Carl Jung said the most important work a person can do is to withdraw his or her projections. Sounds easy, and it takes a lifetime, if that. Such people are accepting, grounded, and not easily pushed off center.

So the work is to see if you can understand different behavior or communication without being activated by it. This is challenging because many managers’ secret fantasy is that everyone be more like them. The thinking is, “If people were more like me, than everything would be fine.” This is something like the opposite of empathy.

So projection happens, and when it does we tend to demonize others, again, particularly in conflict. This is why this blog is titled “Empathy for the Devil.” (And it’s not because Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, is published this week.) If you can just make this move, steeped in self-mastery, of simply understanding the point of view of someone whom you demonize, you’re already starting to play at the highest levels of consciousness and effectiveness.

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