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William E. Smith III, Indiana University–Bloomington

William Smith.jpgAdvising professionals usually view empathy positively, as something advisors should employ to understand and, thus, to better help their students. NACADA’s core values list “empathetic listening” as a defining element of “caring” (NACADA, 2017; see also Ford & Ford, 1989, p. 44; Sims, 2013). Advising scholars identify empathy as a means to achieve various beneficial ends. Hill argues that “listening empathically” can enable “safe conversations,” a practice that “promotes respectful and healthy relationships,” works against “polarization,” and where “curiosity replaces judgement” (Hill, 2019). Carlstrom lists “listening empathically” as one of the skills that can “foster cultural awareness and mindfulness” in multicultural advising situations (Carlstrom, 2005; see also Fox, 2008, p. 351). Building off of Ali’s (2018) work, Schaffling raises empathy’s stakes for advising, claiming “empathy should be thought of as necessary to achieve everything else within the [advising] relationship” (Schaffling, 2018). Jordan articulates well the underlying reasons why empathy is so highly valued among advisors: “Empathy is a powerful aid in understanding others. When individuals put themselves in another person’s position, they can understand more easily how the other person may feel” (Jordan, 2015, p. 217; see also Hughey, 2011, p. 24; McClellan, 2007, p. 46; Paul et al., 2012, p. 54). In as much as empathy aids advisors in better understanding students, empathy’s appeal is hard to ignore.

But advisors should also want to use empathy cautiously, recognizing that it has real limits. Lee counsels advisors that empathy and general kindness are insufficient when working with students of color while making the case that other practices, especially that of microaffirmations, are essential to a just advising practice (Lee, 2018, p. 81). Harman warns advising professionals about “empathy fatigue,” which is a form of burnout that can hinder advisors’ ability to work effectively with students (Harman, 2018). In addition to being situationally insufficient or emotionally draining, empathy itself harbors malign manifestations that can make advising go awry. To quickly get a sense of how empathy can enable bad behavior, an advisor just needs to think of the following types of unexpectedly empathetic people they might encounter in their work: helicopter parents, bullies, and stalkers (Bloom, 2016, p. 37; Breithaupt, 2019, pp. 201–217). When it comes to empathy, then, caution is warranted so that advisors can use empathy rather than have empathy use them. In calling attention to empathy’s dark side, this essay aims to import critical reflections on empathy from other fields to advising with the goal of making advisors more adroit empaths.

Does empathy help advisors to better understand students? Maybe. As an epistemological tool, empathy can aid a person in getting inside another person’s head, but it does so with real limitations. While contemplating empathy’s value as an emotional basis for moral action, Prinz points out that empathy “is easily manipulated” (Prinz, 2011, p. 227). This means that people can engage in certain behaviors so as to shape another’s empathetic responses. In other words, a student can, knowingly or not, emote in such a way that an advisor imputes, for instance, victimhood on a student. As a way of knowing, empathy is limited and can be manipulated precisely because it is a form of reading: interpreting people’s tone of voice, words, gestures, body language, and so forth to imaginatively construct what the advisor thinks the student is experiencing.  

Advisors can also misread a student because empathy is itself partial. “We are grotesquely partial,” Prinz alerts readers when it comes to empathy, “to the near and dear” (Prinz, 2011, p. 224), which means that people’s “capacity to experience vicarious emotions varies as a function of such factors as social proximity and salience” (Prinz, 2011, p. 223). This cautionary note is particularly relevant for advisors working with diverse student populations. Rather than serving as a neutral means to traverse differences, empathy can warp an advisor’s understanding of the student’s situation or experience because, as Prinz remarks, “we feel greater empathy for those who are similar to ourselves. . . . We can empathize with members of the out-group but only by making their similarities salient” (Prinz, 2011, pp. 227–228, emphasis in original; see also Bloom, 2016, pp. 9, 31). If an advisor overemphasizes a student’s similarities to themselves, then this advisor is, in turn, giving less than the necessary attention to the differences between them. Such an empathetic image of the student’s situation conjured by the advisor is thus an inaccurate representation of the student’s actual experience. And this presumes the advisor is able to empathize with the student in question at all. As Bloom points out, people’s ability to empathize with others depends on their prior perspectives on these people (Bloom, 2016, pp. 68–70). In particular, “empathy is modified by our beliefs, expectations, motivations, and judgments” (Bloom, 2016, p. 68), and it “reflect[s] prior bias, preference, and judgment” (Bloom, 2016, p. 70). When working with diverse student populations, empathy and its failures may create more problems than solutions, especially as a resource of first resort during an advising session.

But empathy is partial in another sense. Even in cases where the student and the advisor are of very similar backgrounds, empathy can, as Breithaupt teaches, feed into side-taking. Breithaupt describes a “three-person model of empathy” (Breithaupt, 2019, p. 99) in relation to side-taking: “An observer sees a conflict, takes one side, sees the situation from that perspective, and thereby slowly develops empathy. This in turn leads to a strengthening and reinforcing of the initial side taking” (Breithaupt, 2019, p. 99). Key to understanding this passage is Breithaupt’s point that people pass judgment quickly in situations, assessments that prove to be quite sticky (Breithaupt, 2019, pp. 97–99). When a student presents an advisor with dilemmas or problems that feature another person, such as a dispute with a faculty member, empathy can start to reinforce whatever initial assessment the advisor makes. When empathy is in play, moreover, fairness may be comprised and even outright ignored without the empathizer even realizing they are acting in such a manner (Breithaupt, 2019, p. 98; see also Bloom, 2016, p. 25). These are not problems that more empathy can likely solve, since empathy often increases polarization in these types of situations and across differences (political, religious, racial, etc.) rather than diminishes them (Breithaupt, 2019, pp. 118–120). In other words, an advisor might want to avoid empathizing with a student in situations where they need to be as objective as possible in order to figure out the best course of action in light of a problem or dilemma.  

Additionally, by limiting empathy, advisors can not only avoid burnout but remain actually focused on helping their students. One empathy trap an advisor could fall into is filtered empathy (Breithaupt, 2019, pp. 134–142). In this situation, the advisor identifies themselves with a helper figure and then, from this triangulated position, seeks to help students. A person, for example, might be motivated to become an advisor because of how they saw their advisor help them and others. This person then envisions that, as an advisor themselves, students will respond to them as they believe students did to the advisor’s advisor. In this scenario, the advisor needs students to remain dependent in order to sustain the filtered empathy of the helper figure. Such an advisor would promote neediness rather than student empowerment. Or as Breithaupt explains, the consequences of filtered empathy for humanitarian workers, “filtered empathy does not ‘accompany’ the other but instead only attaches to them when they become a victim, trapping them into that role, perhaps permanently, thus denying them agency” (Breithaupt, 2019, p. 141). In addition to not advancing student development, an advisor operating in this dynamic can see their positive regard for students erode in the face of student success or independence, causing a different form of empathy burnout than described by Harman (2018).   

While it may be tempting to follow the popular culture dictum that more empathy is needed, there is a strong case to be made that empathy will not save us, be it people in general or advisors in particular. Indeed, empathy may cause harm. It may lead advisors astray by amplifying side-taking or bias. An advisor might empathetically misread a student, and thus misunderstand the student’s situation. A student might use an advisor’s empathy to generate a desired response, whether that response is warranted or not when the situation is looked at more objectively. Yet empathy is not valueless, and it should not be rejected entirely. As Breithaupt notes, empathy “can expand our perspective on the world” (Breithaupt, 2019, p. 223). While Breithaupt is specifically thinking about empathy’s aesthetic value here, expanding perspectives can also carry relational value. Strategic deployment of empathy will maximize its benefits while minimizing its potential harms. In other words, when it comes to empathy, advisors should advise with care (both in terms of concern and caution).

William E. Smith III
Assistant Director of Advising
College of Arts + Sciences
Indiana University–Bloomington


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Cite this article using APA style as: Smith, W.E. III. (2020, June). Empathy: Advise with care. Academic Advising Today, 43(2). [insert url here]

Posted in: 2020 June 43:2


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