Care more and carry less

Carrying too much of other people’s baggage is one of the traps our brains set for us. There’s a neuroscience explanation for this—brain studies show that the overall system in our brains that is devoted to empathy can’t run at the same time as the system that is devoted to rational analysis. When one of those systems is firing, the other one is suppressed (it’s called “neural rivalry”). That means that in interactions, many of us become absorbed in other people’s problems far beyond the point where that involvement is rational.

Be vigilant: Walking out of a meeting or wrapping up a conversation, pause to make sure you are carrying nothing extra. Knowing that you will not be lugging the other person’s problem with you when the interaction ends, you are free to express deep, genuine, appropriate caring—and then step back from the emotional side of the situation and regain rational control.

Organizationally, institutionalize rules that minimize dysfunctional demands on your empathy. For example, establish a 60-second rule for any form of negativity: It’s okay to bring up a problem or frustration, but it’s not okay to dwell on it. If it needs more attention, it will get it; if it doesn’t, it should be over and done with.

Robert Cooper