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How To Avoid The Five Empathy Traps

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It's a must-have tool for leadership, but sometimes our own blind spots get in the way.

As we experience the holiday season, empathy is one of the most important gifts we can give someone who is struggling. But as we’re reminded of empathy this time of year, we should reflect on why we don’t show it often enough throughout the year.

Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel and to imagine yourself in their place. It’s not always so easy, though. Empathy requires experience, and until we’ve walked in another person’s shoes, we may find it difficult to understand the emotions they are experiencing or why they do the things they do.

It isn’t fair to judge others based on our own experiences, but we do it all the time. Often, we don’t even realize it. This is not because we are bad people. It may be that we simply haven’t developed empathy yet. Or, maybe we do practice empathy—but we’ve fallen into an empathy trap.

Take a moment to review the following five empathizer traps and honestly acknowledge ones that you have fallen into and how you can do better. And don’t forget to celebrate the ones you’ve overcome.

1. The Stingy Empathizer

The stingy empathizer chooses who is and isn’t worthy of their empathy. We all can easily fall into this trap without realizing it, especially when it’s a perspective or situation drastically different from our own. For example, someone who has never lost a job or had to face a difficult challenge on their own may perceive someone who is living on the street and begging for money as lazy with no one to blame but themselves for their situation.

But if you believe that each of us has the same inherent worth and is deserving of the same dignity that we each believe we deserve ourselves, then you will believe that everyone is worthy of empathy. We need to stop being stingy with our willingness to understand another human being. We have all sought empathy in our lives. If we all seek it, shouldn’t we all offer it as well?

2. The Reluctant Empathizer

This is someone who has developed their empathy muscle and puts it into practice, but who on occasion finds themselves holding their empathy back. Unlike the stingy empathizer, it is not because they don’t think the individual or group is deserving; rather, it is based on concern for the consequences of displaying their empathy. When the idea that empathy equals weakness is so prevalent in our society, it can be easier to sit on the sidelines and withhold your empathy than to risk being perceived as weak or unaligned with the majority. 

If you’ve ever been bullied and your friends watched and then empathized with you in private, or you’ve been the friend who stood there and did nothing, you know what I’m talking about. It happens all the time in the work environment and in public and social settings. The desire to empathize is there, but instead we choose to turn away. We need to stop holding back our empathy for fear of how we will be perceived. When we display our empathy unapologetically and with confidence, others will begin to perceive it as the incredibly beneficial strength that it is.

3. The Impatient Empathizer

This type empathizes with the person they are listening to, but once the exchange has happened, they want the other person to move on already. But empathy doesn’t work that way. It includes supporting a person through the time and space they need to work through their feelings or circumstances.

When we find ourselves unable to empathize with why someone continues to feel the way they do, we have another choice: We offer grace and kindness instead of pushing them to get over it or move forward before they are ready.

4. The Natural Empathizer

Some people are born with an already developed empathy muscle that enables them to empathize without having to think about it. But natural empathizers have empathy traps, too. Some think they don’t need to work their empathy muscle, that they don’t need to pay attention to how they empathize. Are they, at times, being reluctant or stingy? 

They may not understand that we are all evolving empathizers who must continue to strengthen our empathy muscles. I think the traps that natural empathizers fall into are true for anyone with a natural skill or talent. The key is to recognize the potential traps and work to avoid them. 

5. The Judging Empathizer

The judging empathizer judges those of us who may not always be on top of our empathy game. In those instances, judging empathizers may not say it, but they are certainly thinking, “What is wrong with you? How can you be so unsympathetic?” 

Rather than judging another’s lack of empathy in that moment, take the opportunity to be a nurturing empathizer by helping and encouraging others to develop their own empathy muscle. The nurturing empathizer doesn’t fall into any of the empathy traps. They are the empathizers who are willing to help others on their empathy journey.

I love novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison’s description of empathy as a kind of travel: “Empathy requires us to be a respectful guest who is there to observe, reflect, and seek to understand another person’s experience.” To be able to develop the ability to feel another’s experience, we must extend ourselves to travel across our borders and into someone else’s experiences, allowing us to peer into someone else’s feelings, thoughts and ideas to find where they intersect with our own.


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