Can We Have Too Much Empathy?

Deepen your relationships without losing yourself.

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“Is it possible to have too much empathy?”

I’m often asked this question.

My short answer is, “No,” and then I quickly follow up with, “but…”

I can’t recall a time when trying to understand the perspective or feelings of another person was a bad thing.

I find that being empathetic not only deepens my understanding of another person’s experience but also helps builds connection and trust. Importantly, as Brené Brown so beautifully puts it, empathy tells an individual “…that incredibly healing message of you are not alone.”

But empathy doesn’t equal endorsement. This is where we can get into trouble.

There’ve been times when I have allowed my feelings to cloud my judgement.

I once had an employee who frequently missed project deadlines because he was having difficulties at home.

I let this behavior go on longer than I should have. Looking back, I now recognize it was because I didn’t know to hold the employee accountable while maintaining compassion and empathy.

It’s a challenge many leaders face.

I lacked what I call empathic boundaries, which is the ability to show care for others while also putting limits on what we will do or accept from others

According to psychologist, Dr. Henry Cloud, boundaries are vitally important because, “They show me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.”

This is powerful.

We often think of boundaries as a means of keeping the bad out and keeping the good in. Boundaries certainly do that. But perhaps more importantly, boundaries force us to hold ourselves accountable for our actions and in doing so, allow us to act authentically.

Boundaries put guardrails around what we will or won’t do based upon our values and responsibilities.

In this way, boundaries empower us to live and work with integrity – we know what is important to us and make our choices accordingly.

When coupled with empathy, boundaries tell the other person, “I care about you. I care about  me. And I care about us.”

Setting empathic boundaries establishes what is my responsibility, your responsibility, and our shared responsibilities.

And here’s why it matters.

Empathy without boundaries is permissive. Boundaries without empathy is callous.

Many leaders (and people in general) have difficulty creating empathic boundaries. We tend to gravitate to one or the other end of the spectrum, either being too permissive (empathy without accountability for breaching a boundary) or too harsh (accountability without care or concern).

Empathy without boundaries is permissive.

Boundaries without empathy is callous.

Dr. Frank Niles

Here’s an easy test to assess where you fall on the empathy-boundary scale.

Think of how you give feedback. If you find yourself avoiding giving difficult feedback, preferring to focus only on positives, it’s probably because you have relatively weak boundaries. It’s also likely you feel that people “walk all over you.”

In contrast, if your feedback is mostly developmental, with little in the way of encouragement or affirmation, you may need some empathy work.

It’s important to keep in mind, the goal is not to “balance” empathy and boundaries. That’s impossible and, if it weren’t, would be exhausting. Rather, the goal is to integrate both elements in a way that honors all participants and helps foster healthy, productive, and lasting relationships.

Below are a couple of simple, yet powerful ways, to create empathic boundaries. Tweak each element to make it work for you.

Define the Relationship

This is the first step, and it helps build a foundation of trust and transparency.

It is a conversation and the framework I discuss below works equally well in the workplace and in your personal life. For sake of illustration, I’ll use work-related examples.

Before you begin, agree on some basic ground rules, for example, who will go first, that neither will interrupt, etc…

Defining the relationship is a conversation, so there will naturally be give and take as it unfolds. Seek to listen first and talk second.

The goal is for each person to walk away with an understanding of the following:

  • The “non-negotiables.” These are what you stand for and won’t budge on. Very often, these reflect your core values – what is most important to you in life – and concern for your personal and professional wellbeing. For me, it’s respect for the individual, inclusion, work-life integration, and ownership around a task.
  • Expectations. This is where each person expresses what they need from the other person, or persons if you’re leading a team (e.g., timely replies to email; regular touch bases; etc.)
  • Commitments. Finally, this is where you verbalize your promise to honor what a person needs from you and what you are willing to do based upon your values.

Throughout the conversation, it’s imperative that you show your human side and speak truth through vulnerability, otherwise you run the risk of appearing inauthentic.

How to SET the Tone for Difficult Conversations

Inevitably, a person will cross one of your boundaries, often multiple times as my employee did when he repeatedly missed deadlines. At this point, you find yourself needing to provide feedback.

There are a lot of good feedback models out there – SBI and Radical Candor are especially effective – but most of these are transactional. Their purpose is to help correct a specific behavior, not necessarily strengthen a relationship.

In many instances, this is all you need, such as if an employee fails to follow a process or procedure, or you are managing a gig workforce where building long-term rapport is not critically important.

If there is value in deepening a relationship, you’ll need a feedback approach that combines both empathy and accountability.

Which brings me to SET, which stands for Support, Empathy, and Truth.

The SET feedback method was developed by psychologists as a way to set boundaries with individuals who have borderline personality disorder. As it turns out, it works equally well in the workplace, as well as in other settings, such as at home.

When using the SET Method, be sure you follow the order below and use words that are authentic to you. I’ll walk you through each step and give you an example of how to use SET when providing feedback.

Support 

Start here. Begin the conversation with an “I” statement, such as, “I support you;” “I believe you are an important member of the team,” or, “I want to help you.” Starting here shows the person that you care for them and want their best.

Empathy

In this step, you validate the person’s experience by using “you” statements, for example, “I can understand how difficult this is for you,” or, I can see how this would be difficult for you.” Remember that validation doesn’t mean that you approve or accept a person’s behavior. It means that you understand (or seek to understand) what they are experiencing. Just be sure not to tell a person how they are feeling.

Truth

In this final stage of the conversation, you restate the boundary and co-create an accountability plan for the person to follow to adjust the behavior going forward. Do this through a fact-based assessment of the situation and the role the person can play to help solve it, using language such as, “This is what I ask you to do…” or “This is what will happen…”, etc.

Invite the person to provide their perspective on what they can do and, as appropriate, offer your support with a statement such as, “This is what I can do…”

At the end of a SET conversation, the person should have a clear understanding of your expectations, the plan moving forward, and the consequences of not following through on new behaviors.

Using SET: An Example

Using my employee scenario from above, here’s what a SET conversation can look like. We’ll call the employee, Josh (not his real name):

Me: “Josh, thank you for sitting down to chat. I want you to know that I think you are a valuable member of the team and we need you and your expertise.” (Support)

Me: “I know that you have been having a difficult time at home caring for your mother and I can only imagine how difficult this is for you.” (Empathy)

Me: “As a valuable member of the team, we need to you deliver your projects on time otherwise it backs up the product flow, makes others on the team do additional work, and we’ve had to push back delivery dates for our customers. You and I have talked about this before and we can’t let it continue.” (Truth)

Josh: “I know, and I feel awful about it. I am so sorry. It’s been really tough the past couple of months.”

Me: What can you do to help ensure you meet your project deadlines and how might I help?

Josh: “For the next month, could I go part-time or take an intermittent leave to care for my mother but also continuing supporting the business? I don’t think I’ll need more than a couple of months off.”

Me: “Yes, I can do that. Please connect with your HR partner to initiate the leave process. Let me know how I can support you. I will reduce the number of projects you need to take on with the expectation that you will submit your deliverables on time.”

Josh: “That sounds good to me and I commit to it.”

Creating empathic boundaries is difficult. It requires time and effort. We must know our values, listen intently, and communicate with care. But doing so will help you deepen your relationships while also being true to yourself. And that’s the best place to be.   

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