Why Don’t We Empathize First?

Last week, I advised empathizing before advising. To attempt to remedy my hypocrisy, I will now empathize with the desire not to empathize. Because there really are a bunch of good and legitimate reasons we try other tacks. I’ll say some reasons I don’t empathize, so I’m not speculating too much about general motivations, but I think my reasons are common ones.

A big reason I don’t empathize is that when I perceive what seems like an obvious gap in someone’s thinking, or thing they could do to fix their situation, I get excited! I really do want other people to be happy and like helping them, and often I feel impatient about getting right to the heart of things. Plus, people are often asking for non-empathy things, such as advice. 

A related thing is that a big part of me likes conversations to be fast-paced. This goes along with being impatient, but it’s not the same thing. I like the energy and positive affect that comes from getting ideas out there quickly. I like conversations where everyone is interrupting everyone. Not everyone does, and I try to reign in this tendency of mine depending on context.

I also like to show other people that I know things and demonstrate that I’m good at helping people. I like it when they think of me as someone who’s good at helping to solve their problems. And I like getting credit for being the one to come up with a good ideal or novel plan.

And then sometimes I am explicitly uncomfortable going deeper with people. There are a few reasons that often happens. Maybe I’m not feeling so resourced myself, and I don’t want to have to deal with someone else’s strong emotions. Maybe I don’t want to get closer to that person. Maybe the other person seems to want to keep things somewhat repressed for the time being, perhaps because they don’t want to get too emotional right now, and I want to respect that.

I also don’t always want the responsibility of empathizing with people, especially with ones I don’t know particularly well. I have a fear that they’ll start to rely on empathy for me, and I’ll be offering it past the point where I’m truly okay with it. I would say that this concern has not proven itself to be entirely unfounded.

All that said, I still think I underuse empathy as a mode of communication.

  • Jimmy

    Interesting timing on this one, as I was just working on empathizing with my hesitance to empathize with myself.

    “All that said, I still think I underuse empathy as a mode of communication.”

    Why not continue empathizing and find the reasons you don’t empathize when you feel like you should?

    • Fair point. Let me try that!

      A first pass seems to turn up internal confusion about how close I want to be to various people. I feel angry at a perceived obligation to connect and worried that my own time and emotional energy will be used up.

      (Those were some concerns I got more in touch with at Burning Man, and that seems to relate.)

      Not unlike what I said above, but right now, thinking about those issues, I don’t feel much judgment about my current level of empathizing with other people.

      So that was helpful, thanks!