Empathy & Boundaries—can empathy run out?

Empathy has always been a hot topic within the human centred design field. Practitioners often emphasise the importance of empathy to meaningfully connect with people. For leaders within human centric organisations, empathy plays a crucial role in the listening and questioning required to truly understand human experience and context. Without empathy, it is difficult to make meaningful human centred decisions.

An executive once asked me, “What do you do when your empathy runs out?” This was quite a surprising question for me. Is that even possible? Instead of running out, I think what we experience is ’empathy fatigue’. This is the feeling you get when the conversation with a colleague about their life situation seems to be stuck on repeat. This is where I feel the dialogue around empathy doesn’t go far enough.

Two people sitting and laughing with each-other

There is a difference between being empathic and being too flexible with your own personal boundaries. In business, empathy is viewed as a soft stance, that chews up time and requires one to put ‘work’ on hold. I can understand where this notion came from. If we don’t remain true to our own boundaries of time and commitments, it is easy to get caught up in other people’s life situations. This doesn’t necessarily demonstrate empathy.

Empathy is demonstrated when decisions are made with the understanding of the complete human context behind the life situation. We are pretty good at understanding the functional attributes of life scenarios, but not so good at the emotional.

“… the balance between empathy and boundaries is so important, it ensures you don’t suffer from empathy fatigue.”

Here’s a scenario: A colleague is going through a divorce and is sharing their life situation with you. You are able to understand that their house needs to be sold, lawyers need to be engaged, and care for children needs to be negotiated. This is the functional human context. The emotional context is your colleague is unsure about how to navigate this change and is feeling anxious and uncertain because of it. They are unclear about what life is going to be like on their own and that frightens them.

Engaging in an ongoing discussion about how your colleague is feeling, ad infinitum is not empathy. Empathy is continuing to make the necessary decisions within your work context with deep understanding and connection with your colleagues state of being. This will undoubtedly influence your decisions more in line with their well being and interests.

In fact, the balance between empathy and boundaries is so important, it ensures you don’t suffer from empathy fatigue. So you can be at your best, empathic self, all the time.