Active or Passive Empathy?


Our dictionary has continued to morph over these last couple of years with words such as Metaverse, Finfluencer, Doxing, Contactless and Doomscrolling. In contrast, well-worn words have taken on new meanings. Long-Hauler no longer refers to trucking, Dreamers has been winnowed down to a select few longing for a permanent home and Second Husband isn’t limited to the number of times that you have been married.


Still other terms that used to be lackluster are showing up every day in our news feeds and emails demanding a second look. These days I see Diversity and Empathy at least five times a day in job postings for DEI positions, articles on culture and regulations affecting our businesses requiring equity and a more equalized voice.


Like today’s news which becomes stale by tomorrow, words also lose their power when overused. For a while Empowered was big and used constantly in women’s movements. Over the last few years however, we have come to see that power in and of itself leads to unhealthy and unproductive relationships. The “grab” requires a constant push-pull with one the victor and many the loser when what we really seek is collaboration and inclusion.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the word empathy lately. It’s been tagged as a desirable trait in this movement for diversity and quite frankly, has become as expected in the workforce as it has been on the playground. We read that management is required to be empathetic to the plights of the employees which requires understanding and flexibility. Peers are to be empathetic and watch for harassment and bullying at the office. Teachers are to be empathetic to the home lives of their students. Governments are expected to show empathy for those seeking asylum. And the list goes on.


But what does it really mean to each of us individually? How do we show someone that we are empathetic? We are told that we are to put ourselves into the shoes of another, to feel what they feel. That is hard to do when we have not had the same experience – we can only imagine what it must be like to walk their walk. We might feel sad for someone having a difficult time, but that is not empathy – the focus is on our feelings, we are imagining how we would feel if we were faced with the same dilemma, but we don’t come from a place of knowledge.


It's a learning process. When you say to someone, “How are you?” which often quickly follows hello these days, you are required to do nothing to step into their shoes. It’s a meaningless question, a passive one with no action required other than listening to an answer. I was reminded of that by a dear friend who was dealing with the loss of a loved one. Her only answer could be “Terrible” or “I’m fine” which was completely untrue. She told me that she and her husband hated that question more than any other that they were asked during those agonizing months.


On the other hand, the practice of empathy, as opposed to chatter about it, is active. I’ve learned to ask if I can drop dinner off, meet someone at their doctor’s office as moral support, help their teen with a college recommendation or review the resume of someone looking for a job. If I truly want to understand the path they walk, I can’t stand on the outside looking in asking meaningless questions hoping that I am perceived as empathetic. Rather, I must be an active participant giving of my time and sharing in their life.


Our companies are nothing more than a collection of interesting people with diverse lives, a treasure trove of experiences and a wealth of knowledge based on both magical experiences and the school of hard knocks. No two people will ever have the same journey and that is the beauty of a diverse group of opinions. But, until we cross the bridge, we will remain diverse and miss the most precious part, the walk to the other side.


Linda Lattimore © 2022

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