Coaching on Empathy

What do you do when someone doesn’t value empathy? Sometimes a client simply announces that he or she doesn’t care about what is going on with other people. They don’t care what the other person is going through or feels or how they are impacted. Is it true that they really don’t care?

I have had several clients tell me these things. It is a challenge to encourage a person to work on their empathy just because it is their lowest rating on the EI 360 report. You know the saying: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. It is the same with increasing someone’s empathy. You can show them the low scores, explain the impact but you can’t make them care.

These are the times when I have to dial up the volume on my own empathy. My first reaction is often shock and a little fear. My trigger – a person who doesn’t care is dangerous. I have to breathe, step back and become honestly interested in the other person and explore with them what that is like. What’s it like not to care about how other people feel? What’s it like to focus only on getting the task done, period, no matter what the cost? Little by little the client usually reveals that it’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they are protecting themselves from something. You see, their stance that they don’t care is like a barrier, it keeps them safe from getting too close, caring too much, maybe being influenced too much by the other and losing their own self. Caring can be dangerous in other ways also.”Empathy is full presence to what’s alive in the other person at this moment.”

– John Cunningham

When a client’s whole sense of success and confidence is based on doing a job perfectly, any distractions from getting those tasks done feel like a real threat to them. And so, the wall comes up of not caring and they go forward doing their job much like a motor boat plows through the waves and has no idea what damage it is leaving in its wake. Empathy for the clients above comes when they begin to feel safe and when they recognize that their “not caring” is a form of a hijack. When they can manage their own reaction and trust that they will be okay, it is amazing how open and interested in others they become. And so, I’ve come to understand that it isn’t really true that people don’t care. It’s more that they are afraid to care and managing that fear leads them to become much more skillful at empathy.

Empathy for the clients above comes when they begin to feel safe and when they recognize that their “not caring” is a form of a hijack. When they can manage their own reaction and trust that they will be okay, it is amazing how open and interested in others they become. And so, I’ve come to understand that it isn’t really true that people don’t care. It’s more that they are afraid to care and managing that fear leads them to become much more skillful at empathy.

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