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Plastic Empathy

The English language is full of idioms.  Remember this one?

“Plastic Smile”

Definition:  a fake or forced smile, when someone appears to be happier than they really are

I remember it from high school. My friends and I would be walking to our next class and pass someone walking in the opposite direction; there would be an exchange of “hi’s” and as soon as the other was out of range, my group would complain about the other person’s fake smile and how stuck up she was. It was teenage drama at its best.

I was reminded of it a few months ago, when a client asked a question that intrigued me: “Do you ever feel like you have plastic empathy?”  My first instinct was to respond this way:

Oh, no, never!  This is was I do for a living! I coach and train emotional intelligence! I’m an expert! My MBTI says I prefer feeling over thinking when making decisions – my empathy is always sincere!

But this is not how I responded.  His question triggered me, feeling somewhere between vulnerable and exposed.  The fact of the matter is, yes, sometimes I want to feel more empathy than I actually feel – as if I know it in my head, but my heart hasn’t caught up yet (“heart” is a figure of speech, as science explains that all emotional intelligence comes from the brain.)    

Daniel Goleman, a psychologist, researcher, and author of many books on emotional intelligence, explains that there are 3 types of empathy:  cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy.  Cognitive empathy is “I know it,” meaning, I have a certain perspective on what someone is feeling or thinking.  Emotional empathy is “I feel it,” meaning, I can sense physically what someone is thinking or feeling, almost like it’s contagious.  Compassionate empathy is “I want to help,” meaning, I understand and feel what another is thinking or feeling and I’m moved to help or take action in some way.  I believe that this sense of “plastic empathy” falls just on the cusp of cognitive empathy, and there are 3 things we can do to tip it over into cognitive, emotional, or compassionate types of empathy.

First, notice the plastic.  Emotional self-awareness is the heart of EI.  Noticing is the first step to being able to make a different choice and to take action.

Second, let go of judgment – both judgment of ourselves (beating myself up because I believe I “should” feel a certain way) and judgment of others (deciding that what you’re thinking or feeling just doesn’t make sense to me).  To master this competency of empathy, we can learn to feel and show genuine empathy toward another even if we are not particularly fond of someone.  Empathy is not agreement.  And we don’t have to experience another’s situation to be empathetic.  It’s natural to feel more of an attunement with certain people and situations more than others.  Let that be. 

 Third, take stock in understanding what’s getting in the way of being genuinely empathetic.  I’ve found that often, I can be too attached to what I want the outcome to be.  Or I view a situation as less significant than another is making it out to be.  Or – and this is the big one – I just don’t have time to be empathetic because I’m too darn busy to pay attention to what’s really going on. 

I’m grateful to my client for asking this thoughtful and challenging question.  I believe that many of us feel this sense of “plastic” from time to time.  Next time you feel plastic, take a minute to focus on yourself, let go of judgments, notice what’s getting in the way of being genuine, and make a conscious choice to be an empathetic leader.

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