A long time ago I found myself at the receiving end of a self-proclaimed empathic leader. It was during one of my internships in a psychiatric hospital.
My mentor at the time was a woman that was really big on the virtues of empathy.
One day I was allowed for the first time to sit in on a group psychotherapy session. There were only a few group members at the time, mostly women in their forties and fifties.
Within 5 minutes emotions flared up. All attention was focussed on one woman that was trying to put into words how deeply hurt she felt by her former husband’s betrayal. She was crying nearly the entire session while the other group members were trying to comfort her.
Which by the way only seemed to make her cry even harder.
After the group therapy session my mentor sat down with me and asked me how it was to experience such an intense session.
I probably should have said something like “It was really overwhelming, having to witness that woman’s grief and not really being able to do anything about that. How on earth do you deal with something like that as a therapist? I wouldn’t know what to say. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to do this.”
That would have probably made me her favourite internship student of all time because she could have really related to that.
I was a typical rational 23 year old guy. Guess what I said.
“Errrm… Good. Interesting.”
The look on my mentors face made it abundantly clear this was not the answer she wanted from me.
In fact, it nearly sent her flying through the roof. Again.
See, this wasn’t the first time we were in a situation like this. She didn’t want me to just give her my impression – which granted I wasn’t really doing. She needed me to pour out my emotions.
I must have tried dozens of times to explain to her that a session like that didn’t really stir up all that many feelings in me. But at the time I couldn’t really explain why that was.
Since she couldn’t relate to that, it made her think there was something really wrong with me. It also made her very upset and angry with me.
It was clear to her that I was unable to really connect with the patients I was going to work with. At the end of my internship she vindictively told me she had given me the lowest possible grade on the “empathy” scale on my internship evaluation form.
To which I calmly replied: “no surprise there”.
I swear for a split second I saw a mushroom cloud where her head used to be.
For a mentor that took great pride in her capacity for empathy, she sure had a hard time connecting with me.
The takeaway point here is that she needed me to be like her in order to be able to connect with me through empathy.
But Instead of connecting with me she ended up creating one of the most dysfunctional working relationships of the nineties. Just imagine the consequences for your company if you solely rely on empathy to connect with your team members.
And that’s only the least devious of what I call the DEADLY EMPATHY TRAPS.
Because the real trouble starts when you actually are creating connections based on empathy.
Then you are planting the seeds for a whole host of things that can go wrong: misunderstandings and communication errors, false expectations resulting in disappointment and distrust. And on a more personal level: lack of assertiveness, loss of focus and emotional overwhelm.
In my 1-on-1 consulting sessions I point out to my clients what the deadly empathy traps are and how to spot and avoid them. I also teach them what specific techniques to use instead of empathy to safely create the right kind of connection with each and everyone of their team members so they can create a team of top performers.
Are you ready to take it to the next level? Let’s meet. Let’s talk. Let’s get you there.