Empathy Can Be Too Much of a Good Thing

Empathy is critical to being a good negotiator. You must address the other person’s needs and wants in order to reach an agreement. Being emotionally cut off from others is not a recipe for negotiation success. On the other hand being too tuned in to others’ emotions can weigh you down and overwhelm you. An article in Lifehacker has some suggestions on how to keep a balance.

Our brains are hardwired for empathy, which is thought to go back to our innate abilities to parent. But we can shift in the emotional winds blown by those around us, whether it’s the happiness of a spouse or the anger of a co-worker. Some businesses with substantial client exposure warn employees of “no venting zones” so that their clients won’t be impacted by employees’ negative feelings or emotions.

Author Melanie Pinola suggests using two tools to protect ourselves: clear boundaries and a shift in perspective to protect yourself from others’ emotions. If you can label an emotion shown by another (anger, frustration), it creates some distance and gives you an opportunity to objectively react, not just absorb it. The other person is feeling these emotions, not you.

If you use social media, you understand it’s a firehose of emotion, whether it’s genuine or created and manipulated. Friends and family may discuss happiness, joy, anger or sorrow. News (fake or otherwise) often uses personal stories and personal feelings to make a point. Advertisements tug at our emotions, so we will make a decision to support or purchase something. When we see others in pain on social media, we feel it too, unless we’re emotionally numbed by all the exposure. You may want to avoid friends and contacts on social media who are frequently on the far ends of the emotional spectrum to help shield yourself.

If you’re around chronic complainers, you need to find a way to emotionally immunize yourself from their frustration and anger or simply spend as little time with them as possible or a combination of both. Distancing yourself can be difficult if you have little choice with whom you spend your time with, whether because of family or work situations.

You can also fortify your emotional state against negative emotions by strengthening positive ones. Feeling gratitude for all the things that are going well for you can dull the edge of negative emotions around you. If you can build your self-esteem and feel more confident, you may feel better equipped to handle whatever comes your way. You could also spend more time with those who give you positive energy and show positive emotions.

You can also try to transform your empathy into compassion, which is two different things. Different parts of our brains react when we share someone’s pain (empathy) and when we want to respond warmly towards their suffering (compassion). Empathy can result in a shared feeling of pain while compassion results in the sense of concern which can motivate us to act. This feeling of compassion and taking actions can ease our feelings of pain.

During negotiation or mediation, attorneys may float on an angry sea of emotions from the parties. Being able to insulate yourself can help you resolve their differences in the short term and help you maintain your emotional health in the long term.