The Empathy of Caring

By Marshall Goldsmith

Empathy is a deeply personal quality that shapes our ability to make a positive impact. It can include a cognitive empathy — getting into someone’s mind — or an empathy of understanding, feeling someone’s pain, among others. 

A more subtle form of empathy appears when we feel concern for the other person’s reaction to an event. 

This empathy of caring differs from the empathy of feeling in one important way: It is caused by concern for the person’s reaction to the event, not the event itself. 

For example, one of the other fathers at your daughter’s soccer team game might feel joy when the team scores, whether his daughter or someone else was responsible for the goal (the goal is a happy event), whereas you might feel joy only at seeing how happy the goal made your daughter feel (not the event, but her reaction to the happy event). 

In the empathy of caring, you are happy or sad because the person is happy or sad, not because the situation is a happy or sad occasion. Family events elicit the empathy of caring all the time. If we enjoy ourselves immensely at a dinner, but the evening ends with our spouse upset about something that happened at the party, our pleasure tends to be immediately overwhelmed by our spouse’s distress. We are naturally inclined to empathize with our spouse’s pain—because who wants a husband, wife, or partner who doesn’t care? 

People in customer-facing businesses are particularly adroit at the empathy of caring, displaying a concern for the customer’s displeasure after a mishap, rather than about the mishap itself. Customers appreciate the empathic gesture; they will forgive almost any error if they see that you care enough about them to fix it. (I once made an empathetic gesture — returning my speaker’s fee — to help repair a situation where I had misread the audience.) 

The most effective empathic gesture is the empathy of doing — when you go beyond understanding, feeling, and caring and actually take action to make a difference. It’s the extra step that few of us are willing to take. And even when we do act on our empathic feelings, our well-intended actions can be excessive rather than a positive difference maker. 

For example, when I told my client Joan — a wealthy matriarch of an old-money East Coast dynasty who does an amazing amount of good work for her community and never talks about it — how much I admired her as a positive role model for the empathy of doing, she graciously demurred. “If I’m not careful, I become a fixer. I care too much, then I do too much. So I try to solve other people’s problems rather than let them learn from their mistakes and fix it themselves. I become their crutch and end up making them more dependent.” 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme

We experience these types of empathy in myriad situations: when we are overwhelmed with concern for society’s disadvantaged; when we’re alarmed by the choices others make because we’ve been there, done that; when we allow our understanding of people to get in our way; when we mimic another person’s physical discomfort, for example, copying someone’s itch-scratching or stuttering; when we perfectly comprehend a person’s emotional struggle because we remember when it happened to us, and so on. 

We have the opportunity to be empathic dozens of times a day—and each time is an opportunity to display empathy either well or poorly. If you’ve ever come home and neglected your family members because you were still preoccupied with the empathic emotions you felt upon listening to a colleague’s problems, you’ve seen the hazards of empathy overdone or done poorly. 

“For just about any human capacity, you can assess the pros and cons,” writes Paul Bloom, a Yale philosophy professor, in his provocatively titled 2019 book, Against Empathy. He proceeds to highlight empathy’s many cons. 

For example, empathy is biased; we tend to bestow it on those “who look like us, who are attractive, and who are non-threatening and familiar.” Bloom eagerly points out that he is not against compassion, concern, kindness, love, and morality. He’s all in if that’s how empathy is defined. Bloom is against empathy when it is not supported by reason and disciplined thinking, when it reflects our shortsighted and emotionally coerced responses. 

I’m inclined to agree with Professor Bloom. If empathy is the capacity to “walk a mile in another person’s shoes,” we might reasonably ask, “Why stop after a mile? Why not two miles? Why not forever?” This is one of my bones to pick with empathy. For a personal quality bathed in such a brilliant glow of goodness, empathy certainly has a way of making us feel bad about ourselves. It asks too much of us. 

We feel guilty when we can’t summon empathy for someone’s suffering. We feel like a phony after we have parted from the object of our empathy and, no longer in their presence, have shed what we felt, as if we had been playacting at empathy,  being performatively empathetic, but not authentically so. When do we get relief from the burden of being empathic? 

But I do not want to allow such criticisms to obscure why I regard empathy as a requirement for achieving an earned life. 

It is not because it makes us more compassionate, moral, or kind, although those are laudable impulses. 

Empathy is tremendously important because it reminds us to be present. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme
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