The Empathy Trap

Thanks to my cohort phone call this week which helped me craft how I might respond to this prompt.  I wish I could gather this group once a week in person to reflect on the deeper issues.  There is so much wisdom and empathy in the circle it fills me with hope every time we speak.

I deeply value the importance of empathy.  Solving our most complex issues in the world will require an intense level of empathy that builds stronger relationships and allows us to connect with one another at a deep level and move beyond the false assumptions we make.  Both Felipe’s video and the other video show how powerful this is.

Two other videos I love are:

Brene Brown:

and Mark Ruffalo on Sesame Street:

And, still, there is also a dark side to empathy which we discussed in our group.  Do I, as a privileged white male, really have the right to ask communities of color and women to empathize with my fear of losing power and my fear that my daughter might not have the privilege that I was raised with?  Or to empathize that taxing my inheritance means I cannot live quite as easily in my retirement?

For fifteen plus years I directed a university institute that had dialogue at its core and at the core of dialogue is empathy, learning to see from the perspective of “the other”.  I facilitated hundreds of “dialogue” sessions, many off the record, others with school districts and parents, with the Colorado senate and for the governor, with oil and gas and concerned communities.

Most people approached dialogue thinking that if just the other person understood me, they would get it and change their perspective (to mine!).  And then disappointment occurs when the other person doesn’t change or I have to change. Dialogue and empathy can be tools of oppression because they can force the marginalized and oppressed to modify their needs once again to accommodate mine and also give false hope.  Time and time again people and organizations met together, connected, agreed and then reality hit and power was not shared or met equally and what emerged was not sustainable or fair.  Empathy also means understanding why others might not or should not empathize with me.

One of the most powerful days for me was a small group of 24 people we brought together and met with David Trimble who jointly won the Nobel preach prize in 1998.  We brought two people from different sides of the same issue (oil/environment, Israel/Palestine, “pro-life”/”pro-choice”, etc.).  Each person, including David Trimble, shared how the hardest part in dialogue was actually being ostracized by your own people, once you reached out to the “other side”.   This happens when we begin to empathize with others as well.  Empathy means changing and there are consequences to empathy.  We cannot sell empathy without also preparing people for what that means in their own lives and in their own businesses.  There are costs as well as benefits to empathy.  Some as real as raising prices because you insist on fair salary and benefits.

As Brene Brown said: “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one.”

I find our best guide comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.  Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times….”

I think this is true with empathy.  Empathy that is not grounded in the reality of power differentials is unjust.  And power needs true empathy, including the right of the other to not be ready to have empathy for me until I truly change.


3 thoughts on “The Empathy Trap”

  1. Thanks, Paul, for this wonderful post. I think so often we speak of empathy without addressing the really hard parts of it, including how our own communities can respond when we are truly empathetic to others. We use words like empathy and vulnerability because they’re cool now, but we don’t always delve beneath the surface. BTW, your previous job sounds amazing.


  2. Oh wow, Paul! This post just leaves so much food for reflection and personal growth. Thank you so much for sharing such a textured reflection. I truly truly appreciate your being brave enough to put it out here.

    I think if I had to prompt a reflection, I would ask: given your own acknowledgment of power (white male etc.), what does empathy in action look like coming from you? In other words, what does allyship mean to you and how do these reflections help you go deeper in what that looks like in real life?



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