A handful of years ago, I began writing a manuscript, working titled: The E-Factor. It was a significantly different “take” on the concept of empathy, which most of us understand as the first cousin to sympathy.
The chapters unfolded in an exciting but also an unlikely manner. I began feeling like an explorer on an expedition into a strange uncharted jungle. I wasn’t sure where I was going. I did sense that there was danger lurking about, invisible pitfalls I might fall in, but the expedition was so damned exciting that I forged on. About 150 pages in, I shared chapters with some friends and met with some unexpected responses. Apparently there were, indeed, some land mines hidden in this jungle. As it turns out, this was way more of a lightning rod topic than I’d realized. More on that later…
Knife vs. Scalpel: The premise of the book was simple: Empathy is, indeed, that warm fuzzy concept you have of feeling what the other person is feeling, BUT…it’s also packed with a truckload’s worth of ways to use it. Think of empathy as a knife. A knife can be a scalpel, or a bayonet, depending on how it is used. So can empathy…
The default and inaccurate concept of the term might go something like this: “Hey guy, ya wanna feel my pain? Sure. Let me give ya a first hand account with my fist.” That may be overstating it just a bit (maybe not) but most people, and in particular most guys, tend to think that sympathy and empathy are borderline weaknesses, things to be avoided. Women tend to be a bit more kind on this subject, yet even that may be morphing.
General George S. Patton: “I READ YOUR BOOK!” Like General Patton might say, “Let the other guy feel the pain from my fist.” And…while we’re on the topic of Patton, let’s squirrel away one of his quotes, because Patton, in his own way, used Empathy to win his pivotal battle against General Erwin Rommel in North Africa. Patton, sitting atop his tank and having out-thought Rommel, yelled at the top of his lungs, “I READ YOUR BOOK!”
Empathy vs. Sympathy: Sympathy concerns itself with expressing sorrow or pity. “I’m sorry you broke your arm.” “I’m sorry your house burned down”. A billionaire may visit a ghetto and say, “I’m terribly sorry that you’re in such an environment.” Empathy may appear to be a kissing cousin, but it is substantially different. Empathy, involves an active process of the mind. Empathy essentially reaches into the pain and shares it…tries to truly understand it so that it can help. Empathy says, “My house burned down, too. I get it. Here’s a thought that might help you, because I’ve been there.”
Playing the devil’s advocate, I’ll argue (on your behalf), “Yeah…okay. But so what? How can I use that to MY advantage?” I’ll tell you. Here are several prime and practical examples:
Selling: Like Patton delving into Rommel’s psyche, when you’re selling…anything, a toaster, HDTV, a new BMW or a 2 million dollar estate, knowing what the person who’s buying your house, TV, car is thinking can be very, very, very important. Today, when you sell your house you hire an empath…well, they call it a stager, but it’s someone who sets-up or stages your house the way the buyer might like it. They tell you candidly, what the customer will probably like about your house and what they won’t. This knowledge converts directly to $$$$. Placing yourself in the other person’s shoes clearly has its advantages.
Winning: When a team competes, whether it’s football, baseball, hockey, boxing, chess, tennis…any of the sports, it’s of the utmost importance that they know what’s inside their opponent’s mind. There are a million different ways you can do that. Empathy is at the top of the list. Crawl inside their brain. Look around. What do you see? What is your opponent thinking…feeling? What concerns him? Where is he confident…perhaps over confident. Knowing the answers to these questions is akin to being given answers to the test…ahead of time.
Surviving. Driving in heavy traffic today is often a bit like being entered into a reality TV series. Let’s call it Gladiators on Wheels. Your “opponent” may be a teenage girl in a Civic or a silver-haired guy in a Vette, or a beat-to-hell Dodge pick-up with racing slicks on the rear wheels. Any one of these people, like ’em or hate ’em, is in a 3000+ pound missile capable of running you off the road…or worse…intercepting you head-on at a closure rate of 110 mph, if you’re both doing 55. 110 will take you right out, so it pays to be able to put yourself at least temporarily in the other guy’s seat and see if you can use that to your advantage…and survival.
Interacting with Friends, Relatives…the Opposite Sex. Here is where I got into major-league serious trouble when I began dissecting this topic, issue-by-issue, truth-by-truth. The ones whom I annoyed most were, ironically, often people I know well. Oh, they didn’t refute anything I was saying. It just flat-out pissed ’em off. I believe I can see why, though there are many drawbacks to being empathetic as well. At the end of the article, boot-up the link to 30 traits of an Empath. They aren’t all admirable traits, but it’s a pretty good balance.
Whether good, or bad, or none of the above, empaths, by their nature have certain traits in common. In fact, you can take the test at the end of this article and score for yourself. One trait, for better or worse, is an instantaneous ability to hear, smell, sense the truth…as well as bullshit. How we act or don’t act upon it is another thing. Just the sound of the voice alone is usually enough, but the look in the eye, the hesitation, the looking away, or staring too much to counter, the nervous laughter or the raising of the voice… A thousand subtle nuances tell the story to the empath. You almost don’t even have to speak the language, it’s often that obvious. Rooting-out falsehoods in search of “ultimate truths” however, isn’t the goal as Dan Waldschmidt eloquently says below.
Are there any drawbacks to being an Empath? Yup. First thing that comes to mind is it can be exhausting being in a group, because you are bombarded with soooo much info that your circuit breakers can start tripping. Ever go to a party and see one or two or five people huddled outside looking at the rain? They aren’t looking at the rain, they’re taking a breather from the stress.
Another huge potential drawback: If you’re not careful, there’s a reasonably good chance that in your empathizing, you may become such a chameleon at functions and get-togethers that no one ever really gets to know the “real you”. Each one is convinced that they’ve figured out the “real you” though they’ve only figured out the information you’ve fed them. It’s a disservice to friends as well as a disservice to yourself. And it’s a hard habit to break.
Narcissism: The Opposite of Empathy. Fortunately, or unfortunately, whichever way you see that half-filled glass, most folks have only a passing flirtation with empathic behavior. The greater majority of them, as you will see on Facebook, Twitter, and the internet in general are WAY more concerned with empathy’s diametric opposite: Narcissism: a deep and abiding love of…self. What’s in an empath’s mind? What does he or she think?
What’s in a narcissist’s mind? “Precisely, how great am I?” followed quickly by, “How can I more efficiently show the world just how great I am?” “Will a selfie do the trick or should I go ahead and do a video of myself tapping that beer keg? waxing my car? posing by the fruit stand?” Think of that famous line spoken by Bette Midler in the movie, Beaches: “Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do YOU think…about me?”
30 Traits of Empaths: http://humansarefree.com/2013/11/30-traits-of-empaths-are-you-one.html
Not sure what the future of The E-Factor will be. I think that used correctly it can be an amazingly effective bridge to understanding. Used incorrectly it can be as effective as a bayonet. It’s a responsibility, though one well worth pursuing…kindly.
P.S. For those of you wondering what the cover image of that strange ethereal gal in lavender is all about, Gem was the character’s name in an old 60’s Star Trek episode. Gem was, of course, an Empath, and my teenaged brain sucked in the concept for future consideration.