6 Ways to Recognize Fake Empathy in the Workplace

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What is fake empathy? How do you recognize false empathy? 

Fake empathy is when you give the impression that you understand and care without truly connecting and engaging with the vulnerability the other person is showing you. You are practicing false empathy when you only feel sympathy on someone’s behalf, but not with them, or you always throw feel-good phrases at others to avoid engaging with their difficult emotions.

Read more about the signs of fake empathy.

Recognizing Fake Empathy

On the other hand, if you are not truly connected and engaged with the other person’s experience and the vulnerability they’re showing you, it’s obvious and makes people feel unsupported. Be aware of the six ways you might fall into practicing “fake empathy:” 1) sympathy, 2) negative reactivity, 3) disappointment, 4) scolding and blame, 5) making it better, and 6) comparative suffering. 

  1. Sympathy is when you feel on someone’s behalf, not with them. This makes them feel alone and disconnected—having someone feel sorry for them signals that their emotions have been noticed, yet they’re being left to untangle them alone.
  • Your team member has a presentation that doesn’t go well. Instead of practicing empathy by asking if she wants to talk about it, you practice sympathy by simply saying, “It stinks that your presentation went badly, sorry.”
  1. Negative reactivity is when someone tells you their experience and you overreact, telling them how ashamed you’d feel in their place. Suddenly they feel like they should be helping you feel better. Not only are you showing fake empathy, but you’re taking their support.
  • Your team member says, “I just had a presentation and couldn’t answer half the questions I was asked.” You respond, “That’s awful! I would die.” Now your colleague feels like she needs to reassure you: “Well, it wasn’t so bad…I came up with good answers to the other questions.”
  1. Disappointment happens when someone tells you their experience, and you react by expressing disappointment in them. This makes them feel even more shame, and it tells them that they can’t discuss the experience with you, because they’ve let you down in some way.
  • A team member says, “My presentation went so much worse than I was expecting. There were so many questions I couldn’t answer.” You respond, “That’s not like you! I’d never expect that you’d be underprepared for something so important.” 
  1. Scolding and blame happen when someone tells you their experience, and you scold them or find someone to blame. You do this to avoid negative emotions—shifting them onto a culprit instead of engaging with them. 
  • Your team member with the tough presentation reaches out and you say, “How could you be underprepared? You knew how important this was!” Or, “Who was asking tough questions? I’ll go to his meetings and ask impossible questions!” 
  1. Making it better is when someone tells you their experience and you throw feel-good phrases at them to avoid engaging with their difficult emotions.
  • Your team member with the tough presentation reaches out and you respond, “I bet your answers to the questions were great! I’m sure they loved it but just weren’t showing it.”
  1. Comparative suffering is when someone tells you their experience and you try to make them feel better by one-upping them. This type of fake empathy invalidates their feelings and makes their shame into a competition. 
  • Your team member with the tough presentation reaches out and you respond, “You think that’s bad? Once I showed up for a presentation and realized that I’d left my laptop with my entire PowerPoint at home.” 
How to Tell Fake Empathy From Genuine Care

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Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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