I was part of a corporate training event yesterday that focused on strategies of de-escalation, or how to get someone to calm down who is flipping out on you. Of course, describing it that way isn’t polite, which in of and itself is telling. Making things sound as clinical as possible is the surest way to making them sound useless. One word I must have heard repeated over 30 times yesterday was “empathy” and its variant “empathetic.” Under this catch-all word are all the virtues in the history of the world. Compassion, understanding, other-centeredness, love, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control all rolled into one!
I remember this virtue being stressed in my call-center days as we were constantly enjoined to tell the caller “we understand how you feel.” In reality we had no idea how they felt and didn’t feel much of a duty to put ourselves in their place in the first place. True empathy takes a lot of time and energy. To understand another’s experience often means you have to have gone through the experience yourself. If not, it takes quite a powerful imagination. To incarnate into another’s shoes simply cannot be done 86 times a day in a three minute conversation on the phone.
Moreover, being empathetic does not guarantee results that are compatible with self-interest. It can be a tool of conflict resolution, but only because it is a tool of compromise. If you truly empathize with a person’s frustration against a policy you cannot uphold it in good conscience. Since the other person’s feelings and frustrations are deemed paramount, it is very difficult to hold fast to whatever it is that is frustrating them—like telling them what to do. Consider the following example of a bygone era: “Yes, I know it is frustrating and I can understand your sense of injustice, but you have to sit in the back of the bus, because that is law. In this state, colored people can’t sit with white people.” Such a scenario demonstrates that there really isn’t any empathy taking place at all.
Empathy, then, becomes an emptied, catch-all term for “being nice” and coddling people’s emotions in an unserious way. To get people to comply, you offer up some half-witted understanding of their plight yet push on the policy in an uncompromising way. I would rather implore a larger vocabulary that can include the act of listening to someone complain, giving them a chance to be heard, but still sticking to your guns. I would call that patience, and the necessary conditions of that virtue cannot be understood when “empathy” is made to be transcendent.