9 Signs Someone in Your Life Truly Lacks Empathy — and 9 Ways to Manage

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
April 12, 2024 at 7:12PM UTC

We all want to think we have empathy. This ability to understand how another person is feeling and even feel it ourselves, even if the “thing” is not happening to us, is critical for maintaining relationships of all kinds and being, well, human. It’s an important quality for both our personal and professional lives and, along with the related emotional intelligence, plays a huge role in dictating our success in these spheres. Empathetic leaders are extremely important role models for their direct reports and can facilitate a great team camaraderie — leading to better employee retention and productivity.

Unfortunately, we’ve all encountered people who seem to have a distinct lack of empathy, too. These people say or do things that hurt us, often without seeming to grasp how they’ve affected us. Moreover, they can’t handle uncomfortable situations themselves and see perceived slights everywhere. This can seriously damage our ability to work with these people in a productive or healthy way.

How do you spot someone who lacks empathy? And how do you cope? Here are nine signs — and what to do about it.

9 Signs someone lacks empathy.

1. They’re highly critical of others.

Sure, we all do it sometimes. But if someone spends their entire time picking apart other people’s flaws and criticizing every little thing to the point at which it becomes exhausting to be around them, it’s a pretty clear sign that they lack empathy. After all, even if someone has less than desirable qualities, an empathetic person will try to understand where they’re coming from and recognize that all people have flaws. While feedback at work is crucial to helping you grow, if this person’s critiques don’t have any substance and skew toward a rude or wholly negative tone, they may lack empathy.

2. They can’t control their emotions.

Does this person often succumb to angry outbursts over the tiniest thing? Do they have trouble regulating their emotions, especially negative ones? This, too, is a sign that they have difficulty putting themselves in other people’s shoes and recognizing that a perceived slight may not actually be a slight at all. They also aren’t able to let things go, something empathetic people are able to do.

3. They seem immune to or unaware of other people’s feelings.

Of course, this is the core of a person with a lack of empathy: the inability to understand or recognize how other people are feeling. They can’t read the cues people are giving off. For example, if you’re upset but aren’t verbalizing your emotions, an empathetic person will usually pick up on nonverbal signals, like a facial expression or an uncharacteristic unwillingness to talk. Someone without this quality will ignore your nonverbal cues.

Even if someone articulates their emotions, they could simply not care and change the subject back to themselves or something they do care about.

4. They accuse people of being overly sensitive when they’re upset.

If this person does upset you, they will immediately become defensive, accusing you of being overly sensitive when they’ve hurt your feelings. They might even go so far as to blame you for causing them to hurt your feelings, putting the onus of your hurt back on you, even when they’re in the wrong. Ultimately, they invalidate your emotions, which can create a toxic work environment where you and other coworkers are afraid to speak up.

5. They overreact.

At the same time, they are quick to overreact themselves — the very thing they accuse you of doing — lashing out over incidents that don’t warrant this type of aggressive reaction. They can be argumentative and even hostile when they think they’ve been wronged. They, of course, always believe themselves to be right. 

6. They can’t admit when they’re wrong.

Going along with point #5, people with a lack of empathy always believe that they’re in the right. They’re constantly getting into fights with other people, even those outside of work — including family members, friends, authority figures and significant others. Even when they do realize they’re in the wrong, they’ll never admit it, which can do a lot of damage to their relationships with others; they’ll never apologize or acknowledge that they caused the strain. This can lead to gaslighting — especially when this person denies their wrongdoings repeatedly in front of you and management.

7. They behave inappropriately or insensitively.

Someone who lacks empathy, by definition, is unable to understand what constitutes an appropriate reaction. While everyone has trouble knowing exactly what to say or do 100% of the time, these people might make jokes at inopportune times, downplay the magnitude of an upsetting situation (especially if it doesn’t personally affect them) or otherwise act insensitively. In other words, they can’t read the room.

8. They can’t be happy for other people.

You finished that project. You hit quota. You won an award. Yes, some coworkers might be envious, but if they’re quality people, they’ll still be happy for and supportive of you. But a person who lacks empathy won’t hide their envy. They might downplay your achievements or otherwise be dismissive of the things that are going well for you, especially if they want and don’t have the same things. 

They might even deride what you have as though it’s completely irrelevant or not worth having.

9. They have trouble maintaining relationships.

They can’t maintain close relationships, often because they exhibit the above behaviors and ultimately drive people away. Even if they do seem to have okay relationships with other coworkers, it’s likely that you’ll see them fighting with them constantly.  While someone who doesn’t have personal relationships with their coworkers may have empathy, if all of their working relationships are hostile or cold, it may be a sign.

Why people lack empathy.

Empathy isn’t cut and dry. People have varying degrees of empathy, some of which is innate and some of which is learned. Moreover, there are some situations in which individuals exhibit empathy while they may not in others.

People who lack empathy may have grown up around parents and other family members who had trouble regulating their own emotions or exhibited insensitivity or little compassion toward them. Or, they’ve dealt with other difficult situations that have caused them to shut down. There is an element of innate wiring that dictates whether or not someone is empathetic, too

A lack of empathy is also characteristic of personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.

How to deal with it.

1. Remind yourself that it’s not personal.

If a person who lacks empathy criticizes you, has an emotional outburst over a perceived slight or otherwise behaves insensitively, remember that it’s not about you. It’s about them. You’ve probably seen them behave this way around other people, too. They may even have done this to you before. Andit may  happen again. 

2. Don’t expect them to change.

These individuals will not change. Stop waiting for the day when they’ll apologize for their behavior or admit that they were in the wrong. It won’t happen.

There are treatments for personality disorders, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), but they take a great deal of time and effort on the part of the therapist, and the individual who suffers from it must be willing to put in the investment, too. Because many people who lack empathy are unwilling to admit there might be something amiss with them, they’re unlikely to seek this type of treatment. 

3. Stop putting yourself in situations to get hurt.

I was once in a relationship with someone who lacked empathy. Sometimes, he would be withholding. Other times, he would berate me. And occasionally, he would be nice. I lived for those nice moments and kept coming back again and again, hoping that I would get to enjoy one.

At work, this may look like a boss who rarely gives you feedback — and when they do, they’re often curt and rude. They’re not constructive, but every so often they’ll say “nice job!” or “good work.”

In Skinner’s experiment involving intermittent reinforcement, rats were conditioned to press a lever that would result in rewards. Some rats got treats every time they pressed it, and some never got them. Another group received the treats at random, and these were the ones who pressed the bar most frequently.

Don’t be that rat. Stop putting yourself in situations to get hurt and expecting things to be different— the following steps will show you howA person who lacks empathy will always hurt you, but there are ways to protect yourself.

4. Establish boundaries.

If you do want to maintain contact with a person who has a lack of empathy, you’ll need to establish clear boundaries. You might not want to see them too frequently, and you might limit your interactions to a specific kind of activity. For example, if you’ve noticed they take lunch at a certain hour, move around your schedule so you’re not aligning. If you work on a hybrid schedule, see if you can come into the office on different days.  You might also avoid sharing certain things with them lest you provoke an upsetting reaction.

5. Look for validation elsewhere.

You won’t find validation in a person like this. Look for it elsewhere: in coworkers who authentically support you work, in friends who truly care about you, in family members and most of all in yourself. 

6. Develop coping skills.

Personally, I hate the cliche “You can’t love anyone until you love yourself.” To me, it sounds trite and suggests that only people with high self-esteem deserve love. Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build the skills you need to get through obstacles and learn a little self-compassion along the way.

This is especially true if you’re hoping to maintain a connection with someone lacking empathy, and you may have to if you’re required to work with them frequently.They may well hurt you, and you need to have the coping skills to get you through it. Plus, this will decrease the likelihood that a conflict will derail your relationship.

7. Let someone else know.

You’re unlikely to be experiencing this person’s lack of empathy alone, but it’s important to make their behavior known — especially if they’re affecting your work. This can mean confiding in a trusted colleague, letting your manager know or even reporting them to HR.

8. Accept it.

Ultimately, you need to simply accept the fact that this is the way this person is. If you want to keep them in your life — or you have to because of your role — , you’ll have to accept them and all their flaws,  including their lack of compassion for you and others.

9. Or leave.

But if you find that this individual is detracting from your life more than they’re adding to it, you may eventually decide that it’s time to leave. An unempathetic manager or coworker is a valid excuse to leave a job or company if their behavior is having a negative effect on your work. It’s okay to say goodbye to someone who’s proving to be a toxic presence in your life.

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

 Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for managing unsympathetic coworkers? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

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