Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Word on Empathy

It’s a misconception that thinking types lack empathy. If you truly lacked empathy, that would be indicative of sociopathy. The suggestion that thinking types lack empathy is a projection of some feeling types, who don’t understand that thinking types believe emotions interfere with the decision-making process. (In much the same way, thinking types sometimes erroneously judge feeling types as being insincere, due to the relative effusiveness that they exhibit.)

The way one MBTI practitioner explained it to me was, “Thinking types sympathize. They just don’t go as deep with it as feeling types do. Feeling types really like to climb down in there with the other person.” In other words, feeling types step into the situation…really step into the situation…and so when they go to make a judgment or decision they can’t not think about how it will affect other people. This also makes them better able to discern what other people value and respond accordingly.

Thinking types, by contrast, may have plenty of emotions but they don’t want to be biased by them. They think a good decision is one in which you step back from the situation and analyze it objectively. This doesn’t mean they don’t sympathize, but this tendency to stand back and make an objective judgment can cause them to be analytical and more concerned with finding a solution than expressing sympathy. (This is especially true of male thinking types.)

Consider the following scenario: you’re a manager at a restaurant. You have a waitress that has been missing a lot of work. She usually has a good excuse, but as the excuses have piled up you’ve become concerned about both her reliability and her honesty. Then, on an unusually busy night, the waitress never shows up for work and never calls. There’s not enough servers working to cover the volume, so customers complain about the slow service and overall, everyone is harried. The next day, she comes into work. When you call her into your office, she starts crying and explains that she’s been really stressed and overwhelmed at school and had to get an important assignment done for class the next day. She swears that she won’t let it happen again. While there’s technically a policy stating to fire her, you know that you could let her off with a warning this time without any negative repercussions to you. What do you do?

If you’re a feeling type, the moment she starts crying and talking about how overwhelmed she is at school, you find yourself sympathizing with her, but more than that, you want to help her and ease her suffering in some way. You very much don’t want to fire her. You may offer to reduce her hours during the busy time of the semester and let her make them up during breaks. You impress upon her that, while you understand her schoolwork comes first, she needs to give you advanced warning so that others don’t suffer.

If you’re a thinking type, you may still feel sympathy for her, but you’ll step back from the situation a bit more. You may recall the other times when she’s called in, and be concerned that if she gets off the hook this time, that it will communicate to her that this behavior is acceptable. Additionally, you’ll consider that if you don’t fire her for this and then other employees pull no-shows, the laws of fairness and consistency will demand that you give them a pass as well. If that happens, it will seriously impact your ability to effectively manage a restaurant. You may legitimately feel bad for her. You may even be as nice as you can while firing her, but if logic dictates that firing is the best course of action, that’s what you’ll do.

You’ll notice that in both cases, the person sympathized with the girl, but in one case, that sympathy was part of the decision-making process and in another it was not. We all have sympathy for others. The question is, when push comes to shove, do you seek to incorporate sympathy into your judgments or to exclude it?

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