Empathy: Why is This Soft Skill So Hard to Sustain?

Over the last week, I’ve given two talks about Empathy. I talk about this subject a lot with my clients, on my blog and on my podcast. On an objective level, we can understand the importance of being empathetic in our personal and professional life, but when stress and conflict arise, it’s not as easy to show up as our most empathetic self.

Even for someone like me who is trained to listen, acknowledge and validate people, I get triggered into being defensive more times than I like to admit it. So why do we keep falling back into combative patterns when we know how positive the outcomes are when we deploy empathy?

Let’s back it up and examine a typical conflict situation and the potential factors at play.

Conflict with your boss – It’s Friday night and you boss calls you into their office at 4:30 pm to discuss your performance on a project. You’re already exhausted from pulling four 15-hour days in a row to ensure you made the deadline for a client. Your boss informs you that there were some typos and the tone in your delivery wasn’t up to company standards. Your blood begins to boil. How dare they criticize you after everything you’ve done for them! Can’t they see how tired you are and now it’s not good enough. You start questioning your future with the company and your value as an employee.

In this situation we have multiple stressors at play. You’re exhausted. You’ve been working beyond your comfort zone. You were probably looking for positive acknowledgement and validation for all of your work and didn’t get it. You feel misunderstood and unappreciated. We also have your boss who has the stress of being responsible for financial bottom lines, performance and client satisfaction. We don’t know who talked to him before he talked to you.

What we have here are dual assumptions and a lack of listening. Both parties are consumed with being right and being heard that they can’t hear what’s behind the other person’s words.

When we’re tired and not taking care of ourselves, we’re in a stress perspective which makes it next to impossible to see anything outside of taking care of our safety and protection. In this case both parties are in self-preservation mode making a win-win opportunity impossible.

Have you ever had a situation like this? If so, what do you think you could’ve done differently to have a better outcome?


Relationship disconnect - You’ve had a long at work and are ready to call it a night. You made dinner for your partner and have changed into your comfy clothes. Your partner joins you on the couch and you start to share your day with them as they stare at their phone. In mid-sentence, your partner shows you their phone and starts talking about another topic. You lose your mind – completely offended and insulted by their lack of attention. You storm off only to return spouting of about another topic. Your partner is dumb-founded and confused wondering what just happened which only leads to more frustration from you.

In this situation you’re tired from your day and are seeking validation and comfort from your partner. When that doesn’t happen, you take it extremely personally and all of the pressurized worms in your can of frustration comes bursting out. It’s impossible to see or hear anything but what you’re feeling at that moment.

Sound familiar? (It unfortunately does for me.) The people closest to us become the easiest targets for us to unload on when what both parties really need is some empathy and patience. We assume the other person should be able to sense our frustration and read our minds for what we need, but in our stressful reaction, we don’t identify or communicate what we want or need. The distracted party doesn’t realize the magnitude of your potential mood shift and is distracted by their own day.

Even in times together, we operate independently and without empathy, we fail to connect and understand one another.


Family/Holiday conflict – It’s the day before Thanksgiving and you just drove five hours to get to your parents’ house. It should’ve taken two, but the day before Thanksgiving is a parking lot on the roads. You unload your car and enter the house expecting a warm greeting, warm meal and warm home. What you walk into is a deluge of orders being barked from the kitchen and living room simultaneously. Get this. Get that. Bring it here. What are you wearing? You look like you gained weight. Why are you so late? You swallow down your frustration and follow directions only to be told you didn’t cut the apples currently for the apple pie. You slam down the cutting board and bolt out of the door contemplating whether you should stay or go.


In this situation, you’re tired from working all day and sitting in traffic and want nothing more than to be taken care of. Your parents as the host of Thanksgiving have been cleaning and prepping all day and after last year’s political debate debacle, they’re on edge with anything that could trigger disaster.

You have two sides both wanting a similar outcome, but neither side getting what they need.


So what can we do to flex this important soft-skill muscle?

•       Be Objective – Remove your bias, opinions, and personal lens from others and the situation (Step out of your shoes and into others) How could the other person be feeling?

•       Be Curious – If you can’t pick up on other’s emotions, ask yourself how someone else could feel. What is important to them? What could they have experienced today that may have stressed them out?

•       Be Aware – What assumptions of yours are leaking in? What do you really need at that moment that you’re not paying attention to or communicating?

•       Be Patient – Our first impulse is usually reactive, but our first instinct is usually spot on. Examine your own stress level to see if your potential actions are impulse or instinct.


Empathy is a practice and just like Yoga, Kung Fu or basket weaving, we have to keep trying even when it feels challenging. The easiest immediate response based in stress usually has the most emotional clean-up afterwards. So take a breath, get out of your head, show up with compassion and empathy and ask for what you need.