The limits of empathy in business relationships

halifax consulting Published by Halifax Consulting – 6 July 2023

Although empathy is generally considered a valuable and essential skill in sales, negotiation and leadership, it also has its limits. We will distinguish 3 problematic situations.

Excessive empathy

Absorbing negative emotions from others can have an impact on your own stability. Maintaining emotional equilibrium is therefore essential if you are not to tip over into the negative. On the contrary, in this type of situation, it’s advisable to desynchronize yourself. Practicing self-compassion is also the key to achieving sufficient emotional distance. This means being kind and understanding towards yourself, accepting your imperfections and recognizing that you can’t always meet other people’s expectations. It’s a way of setting limits with the other person in the relationship. The more seasoned can also develop emotional regulation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, mindfulness or the practice of relaxing activities. Generally speaking, the key to avoiding over-empathy and being overwhelmed by the negative emotions and problems of others is to focus on the positive aspects of the situation. The aim is to encourage the people concerned to find their own solutions.

Empathy is not enough

While empathy is a key to success in many situations, it may not be enough to resolve some complex ones. Often, in complex situations, it’s better to rely on a few simple principles when making decisions.

In such situations, you need to return to a pragmatic approach: analyze the situation and identify the key objectives, constraints and levers for action, striking a balance between maintaining empathy and pursuing your own objectives. Empathy must be combined with other skills to be effective. For example, critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity and persuasion are skills that can complement empathy to achieve better results. Assertiveness enables you to set clear boundaries: protecting your own interests and those of your company, while maintaining open and honest communication with other parties.

Finally, in difficult or pre-conflict situations, you also need to be resilient. We must seek to strengthen our negotiating resilience in a volatile and uncertain world. It’s also a business strategy to reduce dependency on hazards, risks or customer/supplier relationships.

Of course, as a last resort, it can be useful to call in a mediator or third party to help resolve conflicts. These people can bring an outside perspective and help find common ground when long-standing empathy no longer suffices.

Empathy misunderstood or misapplied

Probably the most common pitfall is to confuse empathy with agreement. These are situations where we feel obliged to approve or support the actions or opinions of others, even if we disagree. It’s important to remember that empathy is about understanding the emotions and points of view of others, without necessarily adopting them. It’s possible to show empathy while maintaining one’s own convictions and expressing disagreement in a respectful manner.

It is also often observed that empathy can be used in a manipulative way by some to influence the emotions and decisions of others. To guard against this type of risk, it is important to develop a critical sense and awareness of others’ motivations, and to maintain personal boundaries. This is quite common in transactional customer/supplier negotiations. You can be empathetic without being naive.

Finally, we should also point out the risks of selective empathy, which can be observed in many managerial situations. Empathy is shown to some individuals or groups, but not to others. This leads to inequality and prejudice, as well as conflict and tension within an organization. It is crucial to be aware of one’s own biases and to strive to develop a balanced empathy towards all parties concerned.

All good negotiators work to improve themselves, and empathy is undoubtedly a key to success in building fruitful medium- and long-term relationships. But it’s also a question of maintaining relational flexibility, adapting to situations and not behaving like a pathologically empathetic or pathologically non-empathetic profile.

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