How Listening in Empathy can Sometimes be Toxic?

Empathy is a human skill needed for every human-being whether a friend, a spouse, a parent, an educator, a coach, a mentor, or a leader.

We are addicted to be seen, motivated by others understanding connecting, and relating to our feelings, we get our affirmations, and our sense of being and existing is enriched with these experiences.

We share ourselves more out there when we are allowed and permitted, and this permission is gifted to those who listen best to us.

As much as this remains a foundational human need, and we develop leaders capabilities and competencies by supporting them to deliver better active listening skills, and better emotional intelligence, which brings to them better engagement, and better cultures. As much as there is a dark side, not every body talks about.

Too much of anything is harmful, and as we grow older, we understand is that wisdom and integrity is not in bringing a fixed response to every situation. It is more about resilience to bring the right action in the right context and situation, without over or under-doing.

Most of the literature I followed are referring to the dark side as absorbing the feelings of the other person, and identifying with it yourself, which is one dark side, but here I will mention the other, especially in the workplace.

Consider a situation where an employee is stressed for a reason, and feel victimized because of some work stressors, related to changing customer demands, or a stretch decided by the leadership, or a challenge related to work. Consider 2 leaders in this situation. One of them pro-the change, and is considering this an opportunity to stretch and grow. The other is still comprehending and is in a skeptic “wait and see” validating the decision or the change as a natural human response, yet they are accommodating the leadership choice. And both of them are interacting with a team of professionals who are exposed to the same change.

Considering the normal reactional behaviors of people towards change, some of the employees will feel victimized, and normally will resist the change, and will have emotions of regret and sometimes, they will be in grief of the good old days / their comfort. As well a bit of blame on the leadership for allowing this to happen.

Listening with empathy is tricky here – considering both understand and own the same capacity and competency:
The pro-change leader: will normally listen, and then respond in facts, and provide support to enact the change and transformation with the employees, and motivate them through walking them through the change curve – this will allow them to experience pain and grow over it, as a way to challenge themselves and allow transformation to happen.
The skeptic-leader: will also listen, yet, will stay with the pain and experience, also will bring them to more convictions that something wrong is happening with the organization leadership, increasing the intensity of blame and resentment towards the leadership.

Not being present in the business view, not buying in the strategic direction, and not integrating the big picture, may lead – even with good empathetic active listening – to catastrophes of disengaged employees. Who will tend to identify with your own skepticism, your own resentment towards the change, and your own mistrust in the leadership or change of direction.

In some cases the listeners or the empathetic person is someone who is not aware of their rank, and their privilege, and may not be in full understanding of the purpose of the colleague complaining. For example: being an HR professional, or being an elderly with no title, or being over experienced, or coming in from a bigger firm, even with equally given titles, the other person is calling a validation from you in what they are experiencing, and giving them this validation to the emotions only without adjusting to the organization vision and the benefits we will gain, with conviction and full buy-in, may yield a downward spiral both of the empathetic listener and the speaker will take themselves to.

There are many examples that can be seen, even in personal lives, and it yields to conflicting messages of misalignment and gaps in the culture, that needs immediate intervention from management.

From my POV to keep the Empathetic Listening useful:

  1. Leadership is about Clarity – Start with being very clear about the direction you are taking.
  2. Safe Spaces and Psychological Safety are very important in workplaces. It is important to keep your culture safe to communicate different perspectives and share views and conflicting opinions within the workplace.
  3. Everyone should learn empathetic listening, and emotional intelligence is a mandate to develop in employees with their eldership and seniority.
  4. When enacting a change – make sure everyone gets the same message.
  5. Take care of the gossips, chats, and make sure you know where exactly the skeptics are.
  6. Promote positive examples of change. And make it engaging and inspirational. Master the art of story telling.
  7. Maintain cultivating and monitor different voices, and different conversation.
  8. Gauge the culture and engagement from time to time, and keep the motivation level and optimism in a proper shape.
  9. Set times for holding space for emotions, and as well clarify the expectations both professionally and personally.
  10. Repeat, and sustain.
  11. One of the very useful uses of psychometric assessments is to discuss extreme empathy vs. apathy, and can be used in adjusting different psychological contracts and development tracks to different employees according to their different phases of development.

In case you want to share your thoughts / ideas, leave a reply to discuss.