Looking for Some Empathy? Avoid Those Who Have Been There, Done That

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It’s counterintuitive.

The basic concept behind the phrase “walk a mile in his shoes”, suggests that to truly understand the difficulties someone is going through, it helps to have gone through such struggles yourself.

However, researchers at Northwestern and Wharton found the opposite to be the case – that people who have endured a difficult experience are less likely to show compassion towards those who struggle to cope with a similar ordeal as compared to someone who has not gone through such an ordeal.

In a set of experiments, the researchers found that the combination of people forgetting how difficult a situation actually was and knowing that they themselves managed to get past it makes it hard for people to offer empathy to those who are currently facing such difficulties.

Yet these are the people we often go to looking for sympathy. For example, if you are looking to discuss problems trying to balance the demands of work with raising a family, intuition might lead you to talk to someone who has successfully navigated through such difficult times versus someone who has not faced such issues. Apparently your intuition would be wrong.

The various experiments included assessing the participants’ sympathy towards someone who backs out of a polar ice plunge, someone who turns to selling drugs because they cannot find a job, and someone who is being bullied. In each case, someone who successfully overcame similar challenges by taking the polar plunge, finding a job, or stopping the bullying showed less empathy than someone who had not managed such situations successfully or who had never been through such experiences.

The researchers concluded that these results have some implications for leaders and employees.

As a leader, if you want to be able to show compassion, they you have to be able to “get out of your own head”. In other words,  ask yourself how upset the person seems to be—not how upset you remember being when you were in his shoes.

As an employee looking for some compassion, it may be best to find someone who has not experienced the difficulties you are going through. Such a person is likely to be more sympathetic to your situation.

I have trouble reconciling my personal experiences with the results of this study. I’ve always sought out people who have “been there, done that” for advice, since I think that the personal experience of someone who has successfully handled a similar situation is invaluable.

Perhaps it comes down to whether you are looking for useful advice or empathy. If I had to choose, I’d go with the useful advice.

If the person giving the useful advice also happens to show some compassion, that would just be icing on the cake.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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