Where has all of the empathy gone?

Empathy is in my blood. It’s one of my core values, and I work hard to practice it – especially with people who seem to need it most. This past month, I had the pleasure of leading several hundred team members of one of the 20 largest credit unions in the US through discovering the benefits of empathy and practicing how to use it. As part of the introduction to the final session, I shared how powerful empathy can be and mentioned how few credit unions are using it as a differentiator. An attendee typed a question that stopped us all.


If empathy is such a powerful differentiator, why aren’t credit unions implementing empathy training and then coaching everyone to use it with members and with each other? In my experience, a lack of prioritizing empathy comes from three main factors:

  1. Emotional fatigue continues to rise.
  2. Lack of empathy creates empathy deserts both at work and at home.
  3. Empathy is an advanced skill that takes time to grow.

Emotional fatigue

The simple act of watching the nightly news can be overwhelming. From the catastrophic flooding in Libya to the devastating fire in Lahaina to the war in Ukraine, it’s emotionally taxing to even be a bystander. Turning closer to home, we each have our own burdens that can be all-consuming. This can lead to what mental health providers term “emotional fatigue.”

Critical indicators of emotional fatigue include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Mounting irritation over minor snafus that seldom bothered you in the past
  • A decreased desire to stay up to date on current events.
  • Feeling numb to the emotions of others
  • Becoming uncharacteristically rigid and controlling with irritable tendencies

If any of these markers feel familiar, you may be at risk for emotional fatigue. And so are your colleagues. And your members. And your family and friends. It’s challenging to empathize with someone else when we are experiencing emotional fatigue ourselves.

As one attendee put it, “The pressures and uncertainty of the world affect my ability to show up for others. I just keep going through the motions of my daily life and never process the impact.”

Empathy deserts

While I would love to talk about empathy desserts, (I’m imagining a bakery where kind, chubby  grandmothers welcome you in, give you hugs, and feed you warm, freshly baked cakes and pies made with love while they tell you how smart and pretty you are. Any venture capitalists out there want to invest?) sadly I’m talking about empathy deserts. Places that are so afraid of feelings that people don’t get the support they need from each other.

I remember a painful time at a former employer when we lost a dear colleague. The company brought in an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) representative to help us process our complex feelings over this person’s death. While we were all pensively sitting in our sadness, it wasn’t until a senior leader spoke and eventually started crying that we all felt safe to really feel our feelings. Until she showed us it was safe to share our big emotions, we were all trapped in an emotional state of shock.

An alarming number of participants in my empathy sessions with credit unions of all sizes say they aren’t receiving empathy from their supervisor and colleagues. Because it’s not modeled, it’s not practiced. And without practice, we create a space where we paste fake smiles on for our members and each other. That leaves us with a hollow space where our emotions once lived.

Empathy is an advanced skill

While we learn several communication skills throughout our careers to help us interact with members and each other, empathy isn’t typically one of them. We learn how to say please and thank you from an early age. We learn active listening skills, including nodding and making “yummy listening noises” to show we’re paying attention. We learn how to ask questions – and sometimes we learn how to ask impactful questions. But empathy isn’t often discussed.

Empathy is an advanced skill that requires us to listen differently. We need to listen to the emotion behind what the other person is saying. Then we need to be brave enough to reflect that emotion back to the other person and see how we can best help them. That’s heavy stuff. Especially if you are experiencing emotional fatigue or work in an empathy desert.

Empathy takes concerted effort and practice. It’s not something that comes naturally to most of us. Setting aside our own feelings in the moment can be challenging. Interpreting someone’s emotions can also be tricky. And using the correct format for making an empathy statement can be the biggest barrier to empathizing effectively. Yet it can be done with practice and a bit of effort – and if we have a way of taking care of our own emotions as well.

Replenishing our resources

Contrary to popular belief, empathy is not a finite resource. We can strengthen and grow our empathy muscles through practice and feedback. And we can refill our own stores of empathy with the right training, tools, and role models. Try practicing these three steps if you feel your supply of emotional concern diminishing:

  1. Acknowledge your fatigue: Begin by recognizing when you are feeling emotional fatigue coming on. Acknowledge when you sense yourself getting short with others or you feel yourself disengaging from emotions. Share your goal with others so they can help you identify when fatigue is setting in and you can do the same for them.
  2. Prepare for self-care: Practicing simple self-care techniques can create an emotional reset, even in the heat of an emotional moment. Think along the lines of a simple meditation technique or engaging in a physical activity like stretching on a break. For example, you could take three deep breaths; you could do a deep squat and pause when you drop something; or you could do three slow blinks between emotional interactions. As short and simple as they seem, these techniques break the emotional tension in our minds and allow us to focus on the conversation.
  3. Write it down: Grab a 3×5 card and make two columns. In the first column, write the names of a few trustworthy people you can reach out to when you’re feeling emotional fatigue setting in. Simply seeing their names and knowing you have a circle of support can give you a midday boost when things get rough. In the second column, make a list of self-care tools that you can rely on to reset your mood. It could be something you can do in the moment like the three items mentioned above, or it could be something that brings you a sense of calm like cooking, exercising, or gaming with friends. Take a picture of the notecard so you always have it handy and tuck the card away where you know you can easily access it during stressful times.

Don’t forget the power of People Helping People to reset your emotional stores as well. As Julia Childs Heyl, MSW says, “Volunteering and exploring ways to get involved in your community is another way to reset our emotions. When we move towards the energy of bringing forth positive change, we begin to replenish our empathy resources. Remedying emotional fatigue with helping others may seem counterintuitive, but it can decrease your fatigue and increase empathy when balanced with restorative forms of self-care.”

Be sure to jot down some reminders of what not to do as well. For example, if you have a complicated relationship with someone, you may not want to call them on a tough day.

Are you ready to dive into empathy as a differentiator? Reach out to learn more about how practicing empathy can benefit your credit union. I’d be delighted to help!

Angela Prestil

Angela Prestil

As Senior Consultant for CU Difference, Angela brings a distinct specialty set in the critical areas of employee engagement, leadership development, and member loyalty strategies. She has helped hundreds of ... Web: https://cudifference.com Details