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Empathy – IS it excellent?

Eggshells is a podcast about how to disagree well (or how to argue well, but we wanna take the fire out of it…). Our first episode is called ‘Empathy and why it’s excellent’ (you can listen to it here).

I know, I know, we’ve just released a podcast episode called ‘Empathy and why it’s excellent’. Am I backtracking already?!

I’m not. Empathy is important. But are there situations in which empathy isn’t useful? In which empathy is actually damaging?

Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist (didn’t know that was a thing; I love how so many things are things), shared this thought-provoking nugget the other day. It defines sympathy vs empathy, and then adds a definition of compassion:

In the Eggshells’ podcast episode on empathy, Hannah and I talk about compassion without distinguishing it from empathy. I wondered what Adam meant here, so I let his post lead me to Susan David and her thoughts about this (here) and also to a book by Paul Bloom, called ‘Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion’. I have added this to my reading list but here is a great YouTube video of Paul literally explaining what he means by “against empathy” – do watch it because it is super clear and under 5 minutes’ long!

If you can’t watch it, fear not – what follow here is the basic jist!

When empathy occurs in one-on-one conversations - like the ones we usually talk about in Eggshells - it connects us. That kind of empathy is about “understanding other people, knowing what’s going on in other people’s heads”. At Eggshells we love this, because it helps us learn and moves conversations forward. Now, Paul points out that this power can be used for good or evil: if you know what’s going on in someone’s head, you can use that against them. You could, in an argument, sense someone's weakness and wield it to “win” (doesn't sound very empathetic, but technically possible within the boundaries of this definition of empathy). In future episodes of Eggshells we'll talk more about “winning” but essentially it’s useless, because nobody learns anything and nobody moves forward. I feel confident you’ll tap into some humanising empathy and choose to use your power for good, folks.

Another vital point Paul makes is that, outside of a one-on-one setting, we must be cautious about letting our empathy drive our choices. Here’s what that means...

As empathy allows us to feel other people’s feelings, it can make us inordinately concerned with the cause of some particular others. Empathy is subject to the same bias as the rest of our selves, i.e. it’s easier for us to relate to, and therefore feel empathy for, people with whom we identify, and harder for us to empathise with those who are really different to us. Empathy also means that it’s easier to feel what one person is feeling than what a whole load of people are feeling, as in: “because of empathy, we’re more concerned with a little girl stuck in a well, than we are with a crisis like climate change.”

This hits home for me. It’s bugged me for years how easy it is to relate to one person, but it's less easy to be motivated by the suffering of thousands. As an actor, I think of the many theatre pieces that have been made about one person’s story, trying to get empathetic audience members to care about a distant humanitarian crisis that they cannot feel.

So if empathy is most accessible when specific to an individual, and bias makes us more likely to empathise with some than others, this means that empathy is bad news when stimulated by, say (as Paul B puts it) “unscrupulous politicians”. Our empathy can be used to make us feel strongly for a perceived victim and therefore blame the perceived perpetrators, who might be a collection of people like (again as Paul B puts it) immigrants or Muslims. Have you ever been in a conversation when someone takes an isolated incident against one person and uses it to justify action against a group? That might be a case of not-useful empathy.

Or imagine that a young man, conscientious and concerned for his community, takes a gun to a protest to protect himself and others then, when he really feels threatened, shoots people he perceives to be attacking him? Might empathy contribute to a jury acquitting a person of counts including double homicide? As a matter of fact yes, it might. Especially if he sobs in the court room.*

I’m often guilty myself of letting my emotions give me some questionable viewpoints. What I would be better off doing is asking myself whether and where justice needs doing - regardless of who is the most sad. This involves critical thinking (which we adore at Eggshells), and ultimately is what Adam, Susan and Paul refer to as compassion.

Hopefully you’ve taken a mix of these ideas from our Eggshells podcast episode on empathy: something about compassion as a useful tool for moving things forward, and empathy as a still-effective way to humanise your conversation partner. Just remember that it might be not-useful empathy for someone else, that got you so mad at your conversation partner in the first place.

Good vibes to you -


*I can't find a truly neutral article about the verdict of the case against Kyle Rittenhouse so I linked New York Times above, and here's one from another source I trust (BBC) plus one that has a lot of potentially empathy-inducing crying people and language featured (New York Post).

What did you think of the empathy episode, and of this article? Would love to hear –

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