In my work as an empathy speaker and educator, I see a lot of misunderstanding about what empathy really is. Here are some of the most common myths — and facts to debunk them.
Myth 1 - it's only 'Feeling the Feelings'.
According to Goleman and Ekman, there are actually 3 types of empathy - emotional (feeling the feelings), cognitive (perspective taking) and compassionate (Listening, Connecting, Caring and Responding). For discussions about empathy to be productive, we must all be talking about the same definition. At Empathy First we primarily focus on Compassionate Empathy - the ability to share and understand the feelings of another person and respond appropriately to make them feel heard, valued and visible.
Myth 2 - You're either born with it or you're not
Healthy empathy is a skill that must be understood and practiced over a lifetime. There is always something new to learn. Empathy Training is a great place to start. It's true, some people have a natural tendency to be empathetic but experience and education play a big role in how that empathy is expressed. My thinking is that if it's something we teach to children (see Kids Books about empathy) then it can be a lifelong skill we can all practice.
Myth 3 - Empathy is give, give, give
Healthy empathy begins and ends with self care to prevent empathic burnout. Knowing the different types of empathy can help here. It can be exhausting to live in emotional empathy where your emotions fluctuate based on those around you (if you have poor boundaries). Eventually you won't have the energy to show up for your family and friends how you would like to. It is essential that you prioritise your own self care and boundaries and learn to practice compassionate empathy to avoid compassion fatigue and allow you to be the awesome, supportive person they deserve.
Myth 4 - Empathy doesn't belong at work
Research shows Empathetic leadership and teams are the key to a healthy, happy, innovative, productive, sustainable business. In fact, according to the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy study, 96% of employees consider it important for employers to demonstrate empathy, and yet 92% believe this trait is undervalued in their workplaces. Empathetic workplaces have higher work engagement, higher retention, better mental health culture and profitability (Jonsdottir & Kristinsson, 2020).
Myth 5 - An 'empath' is the same as an 'empathetic communicator'
An 'empath' often lives in emotional empathy and may struggle with boundaries. An empathic communicator, however knows the value of listening, connecting, caring and responding in a way that honours the boundaries of both parties. With education and self-care a self-defined 'empath' can learn to practice health empathetic communication that builds trust in the relationship (empathy training can help).
Myth 6 - Intention is enough
People can't hear your intentions, they can only hear your words and actions. Learning to communicate in a way that makes people feel heard, valued and visible is a crucial skill, personally and professionally. In our Empathy and Grief podcast, Tiff Bartlett explains beautifully the devastating impact well-intended but poorly-delivered sympathy can have.
At Empathy First, in our online and in-person empathy training, you will learn WHAT empathy really is, WHY it matters to you personally and professionally and HOW to empathetically communicate in a healthy and safe way.
Hi! I'm Leanne Butterworth, Empathy Speaker and Educator, University Lecturer and Mental Health Advocate.
Empathy First is a Brisbane-based social enterprise offering Empathy workshops, online courses and individual Empathy coaching to help you build connection and strengthen your relationships for personal and professional success.
Contact me today and let's talk about how you can put Empathy First.