How Empathy Becomes a Self-Imposed Burden

“Recognizing your suffering puts a burden on me. Just the act of recognizing you are ill makes a claim on me, doesn’t it? I have to respond. I have to empathize. And that takes a toll on me. And the more people I have to empathize with the harder it is.”

A Slate review of Meghan O’Rourke’s The Invisible Kingdom: Re-Imagining Chronic Illness

Photo illustration by Slate. Image from Penguin Random House.

A book review opened with this excerpt and I was stuck. I couldn’t get past it. Even for a rhetorical point, the discussion on empathy felt heavy.

Do people find empathy burdensome?

What are your expectations when sharing your challenges?

My next call was starting. This was a topic I was going to have to come back to. Such is the case when you squeeze in micro-reading sessions at any available moment by popping open your “Pocket” or “Kindle” apps. 

Sometimes you flag a passage for later and come back to it.

And sometimes you put that passage to work before you have the chance to.

As I made it past the end of the quote, my client hopped onto our meeting. I put my phone down and we were quickly into another session, helping her work through the transformation work she’d taken on in her new role.

The quote was immediately and immensely relevant to what she had on her mind.

For months she’d been avoiding a direct conversation with a Team Member of hers who’d been struggling at work for a host of reasons. First, he was doing work outside of his job description which is always problematic. His challenges were compounded by the fact that he had been carrying a lot of the emotional burden for the overall team during recent changes at the organization, serving as an emotional buffer to create space for everyone to heal. He was overextended emotionally and functionally.

He felt as if he was doing all he could without feedback, guidance or appreciation.

The higher ups felt as if he was not making enough of an impact and not bought into longer-term plans.

It was at this precise moment of escalated tension that my client was brought on as an executive. One of her top priorities was make progress on the situation. She didn’t know where to begin.

Before a conversation had even happened she felt like she was carrying the weight of this tension herself. 

She felt as if she had to be ready with answers. When she engaged with her new Team Member, she felt like she had to be ready to hear his concerns and grievances and challenges, and then, as a boss (and as a new executive at this company) – have answers for him. 

Before listening to him she felt the weight of expectations to have answers. But was she being fair to herself?

If the situation were reversed, what would she have expected of a new boss?

So I asked her: “Why do you share your pain with other people?”

It was a bit of a trick question. I quickly followed with: “Do you expect them to have answers for you? Right away if at all?”

It was eye opening. (No, I don’t always want answers or want people to fix my problem. The most important thing is being heard.)

“Do you share with people and expect them to carry your pain with them going forward?”

Eyes wider. (No. If I felt like people were taking what I shared as their burden, I wouldn’t want to share as much or as often.)

The moment of truth. She wasn’t being fair to herself and as a result, she wasn’t supporting her new Team Member effectively. 

People share first and foremost, to unburden themselves in the presence of someone whose present. If nothing more comes from it, simply unburdening can be helpful. It’s a release. It helps you talk through your own point of view. It helps you gain clarity. 

Said more pointedly: If you share what’s on your mind, and the other person does nothing but hear you, it’s still immensely valuable. 

In a few short moments, she realized she had self-imposed expectations that were incongruent with her Team Members actual needs.

She hadn’t responded or engaged directly with this Team Member because she felt the burden of having answers as opposed to simply providing space to be heard. Her own expectations had made a conversation that hadn’t happened yet, feel like a claim.

A false claim. Self-imposed claim. But one that she was feeling. Unfairly. And unproductively.

The claim mentioned in the quote above is often self-imposed. It’s not requested or required by the other person. We do it to ourselves.

Don’t underestimate the impact you make by making someone feel heard

I fully appreciate the desire of my client to be ready and prepared with answers. However the practical constraints of doing so meant she continued to put off conversations with her Team Member. 

In her desire to do the right thing, her Team Member was going longer and longer without feedback. 

It was the worst kind of flywheel. The more time that passed, the more pressure my client felt on being prepared and having answers.

Which is the point we arrived at: break that cycle. Schedule a meeting. Open the discussion. Own the delay with honesty and even vulnerability. And then, listen.

Hearing what people have to say makes a difference. A huge difference

  • Highly engaged employees are three times more likely to say they feel heard at their workplace (92%) than highly disengaged employees (just 30%).
  • 74% of employees report they are more effective at their job when they feel heard.
  • 88% of employees whose companies financially outperform others in their industry feel heard compared to 62% of employees at financially underperforming companies.

Hearing is not the aspirational end point. But it is a tremendously powerful place to start. 

When you make space to hear, and when you realize the value of being a positive and attentive listener – a curious and sincere one – the anxiety of engaging with anyone starts to go away. 

It’s the anxiety that is crippling, not the engagement. If we unwind that anxiety, we’re setting the stage for something magical. 

Photo by Eyvn from Pexels

How do you empathize with a team of 1,000?

The last team I managed scaled from 200 to 1,050 in under two years. 

It is at scale that people tend to think like the quote we started with. When you feel the weight and responsibility of more and more people, the easier answer tends to be – grow calluses. 

Stop personalizing. 

Stop individualizing. 

Stop caring.

It is this approach to scaled management and responsibility that explains why employees are apathetic and disengaged, and why we’re facing a near rebellion and reckoning in the employment markets.

It’s not working. It’s also not necessary.

What I learned as I took professional and personal responsibility for the happiness, health and success of more people was the power you could have by simply creating space for people and making sure they were heard. 

I was notorious for keeping meetings tight. My interviews for new candidates were 15 minutes long. My average weekly 1:1 with a direct report ranged from 8 to 25 minutes. Yet I have been told and as a result I believe with confidence that each one of my Team Members not only felt supported but also, felt equipped and liberated against the work streams they owned.

For all the structures, agendas, frameworks, and processes we built to make sure our people felt equipped and unleashed, the most important thing I could do for them was create a consistent space where they knew they’d be heard at the appropriate interval

By unwinding the anxiety and being honest with myself that I couldn’t in any sustainable way carry the fears and needs of 1,000 people for an extended period of time, I found a powerful way forward.

A majority of the time, things that people shared with me were addressed in the meeting itself. And a majority of the time, I had very little to do with it because here’s the order in which things tended to play out:

  • Give people space to talk out loud about their challenges without distractions and they’ll likely get to an answer themselves. Most people know what to do, the world simply hasn’t given them the space to focus on themselves and their responsibilities.
  • As people narrate, the most effective way to participate is through a combination of reminders, questions, and accountability. Reminders are important, there’s nothing more powerful than someone reminding you of what you’ve done in the past or why you’re in charge of a project or initiative now. Questions are amazing, because they shift any resolutions from something the person has been assigned to something they own. And finally, accountability is critical, because you help people think a step beyond the work toward how they are going to hold themselves accountable, and even, how their peers and the company may.
  • If the above two don’t work, as a result of your function or position, you will have captured enough context to provide some insight or recommendation or at the least, some additional avenues for the person to explore as they pursue their clarity. 
  • Finally, and in the rarest of cases, you have something to carry with you because it has now become yours to carry. As their boss, their peer, their partner, whatever your role, if the above three don’t work you may have something to carry forward.

Empathy is not Burdensome. It’s Liberating for Everyone. 

Empathy is getting a lot of play these days; but I do feel like as a result, it’s been overcomplicated to the point of feeling heavy. If we get back to empathy being about the feeling that’s created between people, not about the solutions that are provided to people, people will feel less anxious about being empathetic.

From there, amazing things become possible. Who knew that our ears were the greatest gift we could give to people? 

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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