Toggling Empathy - For Deeper Influence and A Better Path Forward
Today, as I was starting to journal, I thought of how journaling is in vogue. People are saying, “Journaling is really important. It's important for gratitude. It's important for your well-being. It's important for this and that.”
Well, I've tried journaling but, to be honest, I haven't been very consistent at it. So recently I started switching it up a little bit. I started journaling in much smaller entries, like three to five lines. And in particular, I keep a couple of different types of journals. One is for deeper thoughts, and another one is for what I call “Shine”. Now, I borrowed that term from the Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. There’s something that really bothered me about the word proud – it feels like arrogance. And I never really understood the concept of, “I'm proud of this accomplishment”. I’ve always felt like it was a different emotion.
When something happens and I feel good about it, I don't feel good about it in an arrogant way. I'm happy that the thing happened. It's a form of gratitude and appreciation. It’s a job well done, a fist bump, a high five. It’s not from an arrogant position. It wasn't until I read the book Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, where I saw that it was described as “Shine”, that it resonated with me. And so, I created a Shine Journal. In it, I celebrate the wins because I tend to be pretty hard on myself. That's the back story of my journaling experience which brings us to today's journaling.
I was sifting through my other journal, where I document my thoughts and what I want to expound on or explore, and I stumbled upon a journal entry about a skill that I wanted to have. And, over time, I've mastered it so I wanted to share it with you. This is the entry verbatim, because I think I said it better then.
The title is ‘Toggling Empathy’ or ‘Sliding Scale Empathy’. Not sure which one it is, that’s what the title says. The journal entry starts this way:
“I realize why I never became a psychiatrist despite becoming very, very good at it and despite gravitating towards it as a career path. It's the same reason I find my work in ‘Care for the Caregiver’ or ‘Peer Support’ to be so taxing. It's the same reason I choose to coach, consult, and teach on high performance, more so than on self-help. And it's the same reason I find higher leadership roles to have extreme peaks and extreme pits and valleys. I am an empath - an empath extremist, in fact. I feel what others feel and I extend it beyond them. If it's joy, I can see its downstream implications and I feel that too. If it's trauma, I can see downstream, and extrapolate, and extend. And I feel that too. This is a simultaneous superpower and kryptonite. It's a strength and a strength overdone. Anyone with this trait would run from leadership. When things are bad, they feel really bad.
But yet people will pull us to leadership because when we see good, we really feel and see the downstream good. If there's one thing I want to master is how to toggle my extreme empathy from full on to standby and back again. The times I have been in flow have been when I successfully toggled empathy as a leader, as a parent, as a colleague, and as a friend.
Feel what others are feeling and then show them that better place and help them get there.
Feel what others are feeling, assess and feel the potential downstream, toggle from full on to standby and back again.”
When you are on standby, you then see and feel the paths to better places. You use reframing and other influence tools to move them there and you get them to see and experience that better future. The danger is, if you leave it full on during negative emotions, it can be devastating. And if you leave it full on during positive emotions, you can miss a negative potential future.
The ideal empathy mastery is to be able to put it on standby, to see the positive when all is negative, and to assess for negative when all is positive.
I hope you found this helpful. This is something that I have tried to work on because, personally, I found that when I would coach or counsel somebody through a difficulty, I often found myself still feeling that thing; I experienced something at work, and when I went home, I brought that whole thing home, feeling that emotion still at night. It was almost like I had taken their emotion. And I realized that is not a healthy way to move forward.
It certainly wouldn't be healthy if I were in a heavy leadership role and experienced all that stuff. Or if I were in a psychiatric role where I was just hearing negative, negative, negative or dysfunction, dysfunction, dysfunction, or disease, disease, disease – that would be too much. It’s the same thing with when I do “Care for the Caregiver” and “Peer Support” to help people through stress. I can't live in that space all the time because I found myself taking it on and finding it too exhausting, too taxing. This is just me.
I found myself being in “Care for the Caregiver”, where we help nurses and doctors and NPs and PAs and health care workers, with the stress of day-to-day, or the stress of the pandemic, or the stress of politics, and staffing shortages, and all these things, and sometimes I would have to call another Care for the Caregiver person.
In fact, all of us have to do that.
We would call each other and say, “Hey, I'm having a really tough time. I just heard this and this, and it's really affecting me”. And so we talk through it.
I found that this is my own thing. I take on too much. So, I've designed my work around it. In my coaching practice, for example, I'm not just coaching people through dysfunctional relationships. I'm coaching people who are already successful and they want to have more success. They are successful at work and they want to be more successful at work. They are successful at home and they want to be more successful at home. Or they are successful at work but they are not as successful as they want to be at home. But they are motivated and they see a brighter future. I help them get there, rather than staying in the dysfunction.
That's my own thing. And that's why I've carved out my own practices so that I don't fall into the negative too much.
Over time, I wanted to learn how to toggle empathy because I felt like I'm often asked to be a leader, or I'm often asked to help somebody with something they are going through. And when I do that, I don't serve them well if I just avoid it. That’s why I set out to master this skill.
And it's something that I've asked a lot of people about, from multiple disciplines. How do you do it? How do you handle this?
I’m constantly learning, even if I’m sitting at my kids’ basketball game. If I meet somebody and they say, “Oh, I do X, Y, Z.” I will continue that conversation, “Where? Oh, tell me about that”. I want to learn from what other people are doing. What's helping them find success? How can I adopt it or try it? And maybe I try it and it doesn't work for me. That’s okay.
But this toggling of empathy is something that I found very helpful. This has really worked for me over time. I hope you find it helpful too.
There is one thing I want to be clear about, though; you are never turning empathy off. You are putting it on standby. Empathy is what makes us human. Empathy is what makes our relationships whole. Empathy is a huge part of our human-human connection. Empathy is what makes us work in groups and teams. It’s what makes us work toward a common good.
Don't ever turn it off. Put it on standby so that you will still have access to it. You don't want possibility blindness. Sometimes in extreme emotions we can't see other possibilities. The same is true for extreme celebration. We can't see the potential dangers. And in extreme negativity we can't see the potential benefits or a good future.
Sometimes we need to toggle the empathy to standby and then bring it back again.
Recommended Book: Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything by BJ Fogg - https://amzn.to/3PItb8s
If you’re a busy professional who wants to have incredible success at work and at home (without neglecting those who matter most), then check out The Influence Playbook at https://www.influenceplaybookmonthly.com