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Cutting Off Empathy

26 March 2016 / By David

Don't feel your customers' pain. Do something about it.

It’s the latest rage. One company after another studies their customers and goes to great lengths to make sure that when they say  “we feel your pain,” people believe them. What is the effect of using empathy as a strategy?

A 2011 scientific study (PDF) found that deep empathy can harm your ability to help others. This means that too much empathy causes your negative emotions to increase, which creates such a stressful situation that you can no longer take positive action.

“Empathy is important for understanding others’ emotions very deeply, but there is a downside of empathy when it comes to the suffering of others,” explains lead researcher Olga Klimecki. “When we share the suffering of others too much, our negative emotions increase. It carries the danger of an emotional burnout.”

If empathy alone presents significant challenges, how can we bring emotional intelligence to our relationships with customers? Compassion offers a possible solution. Compassion requires us to be concerned for their suffering, but also to do something about it. Compassion opens up conversations, collaboration and creativity while empathy alone lends itself to observation without action.

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Here's the bottom line.

Empathy = I feel your pain

Compassion = I understand your pain and want to do something about it

We see the impact of this distinction in the healthcare industry. Providers can seem more detached and businesslike than we would be in the same situation. While empathy alone would likely lead to burnout in the face of overwhelming pain and loss, compassion drives action. Empathy becomes an important component of the plan instead of the result.

Klimecki makes the case, “We can increase our resilience and approach stressful situations with more positive affect.”

Your goal is to apply loving kindness in response to the suffering of others. You become the source of something highly positive, rather than the victim of something highly negative. That’s why compassion gives you the staying power that you won’t have by merely being empathetic.

How do you know when empathy alone as opposed to compassion has become the driving strategy for customer relationships? Look for these two likely outcomes of empathy as a professional goal in your organization:

  1. Colleagues stop short of true empathy, uncomfortable with the emotional engagement required, and no progress toward “understanding our customers” is ever made. Innovation stalls because any understanding of the challenges faced by customers is superficial.
  2. Colleagues will dive too deeply into empathy, and while good things may happen in the short term, eventually the effort will fizzle out as people burn out from the heavy emotional lift required.

What would it look like if you moved past empathy and instead engaged your customers with compassion? How would your colleagues feel and act if they were called to solve problems with compassion instead of just feeling the pain of your customers? What would your customers see and feel if instead of “feeling their pain” you “showed them compassion” through action?

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