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Empathetic & Dangerous: The Dark Empath

What's the worst part of a dark empath? That they understand you.

Man wearing hood in warehouse
Not every dark empath hangs out in run down warehouses... but some do

Empathy. It is often associated with the do-gooders of the world—it is the ability to understand, interpret, and relate to the exterior emotions of others.

Empaths are typically people who recognize others’ emotions and take them into consideration. Conversely, unempathetic people disregard others’ emotions or do not see their inherent value. Last year we did a CLCI Live on Empathy vs Sympathy. Now we look at empathy's darker side, especially when it is a tool used to achieve one’s ends.

On this CLCI LIVE, Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Jerome LeDuff Jr (MCLC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Lisa Finck (PCC), Mike James (ACC), and Jen Long (MCPC) look at how empathy can be used to manipulate others and how we can properly apply empathy.

Empathy in Coaching

Empathy in the coaching space is the tool we use for recognizing our client’s emotions. It is an innate quality of all people (even more so in coaches) but still needs proper development to become strong. Going towards the extremely empathetic end of the spectrum, highly sensitive people are so emotionally in tune with others which can be very overwhelming; when developed and refined, however, empathy becomes a superpower. It gives you the ability to connect with clients on a deeper level and can cause them to open new wells of insight that were never thought possible.

However, in the coaching space, empathy can become dark when the coach turns their focus from the client to themselves, thereby becoming a dark empath.

A dark empath is someone who uses cognitive empathy at the expense of others, often for personal gain. They can recognize someone’s emotions without sympathizing with them. Dark empaths are highly attuned to others and twist that knowledge for their personal gain. A coach who is using dark empathy may even do so just for the self-satisfaction that they get when a client does what the coach thinks is right.

Different Kinds of Empathy

Dark empaths use what is called cognitive empathy exclusively because they understand someone else’s thoughts and feelings without getting emotionally involved. While Emotional sympathy is the act of feeling someone else’s emotions as if you are also experiencing them. Finally, compassionate empathy combines both the cognitive and emotional aspects, creating an understanding of others’ emotions along with a response as if you were feeling them yourself.

So if we want to be less like dark empaths we should avoid cognitive empathy, right?

Wrong! Cognitive empathy is actually ideal for the coaching space. Instead, a coach should be able to avoid emotional involvement. Cognitive empathy, allows you to help your client without being emotionally drained or biased by your own emotions. It allows you to focus entirely on the client during their session. Used in the coaching space, cognitive empathy allows us to identify what our client is feeling and ask questions around their emotions.

So, when is it okay to use cognitive empathy?

All the time. It’s how and why you use it that matters. When you focus on the client and how to help them, your cognitive empathy is grounded in the ethical practice of coaching. You are taking time to lean in and figure out what’s going on for your client, not trying to manipulate them.

But without ethics, cognitive empathy can go dark. If a coach doesn’t have a good moral compass, empathy can easily teeter into the dark because there isn’t a concrete coaching ethical standard to hold onto. As long as you’re letting your ethics guide you, you will be using cognitive empathy to help them, not harm them.

How do we help our clients navigate a dark empath in their own lives?

Group coaching session
Can you spot the dark empath?

As a coach, you provide a necessary space for the client to feel emotions without the fear of them being manipulated later. Often, the manipulated person can feel guilty for being susceptible to a dark empath. This creates an endless cycle of negative feelings and a need for a safe space to express and explore those feeling and also how to proceed moving forward.

Some questions that are helpful in this coaching context might be:

  • What are you feeling right now?

  • How do your emotions serve you?

  • How do you want to interact with this person going forward?

  • What do you have control of?

  • What do you know and what do you not know in this situation?

  • What do you want from this situation?

How can we tell the difference between good and bad empathy in coaching?

A coach who is using empathy for good will allow the client to lead, and will ask themselves who their actions in the coaching space are serving first: the coach or their client?

Coaches who choose to promote their own interests, ideals, and desires, at the expense of their clients are often using dark empathy to achieve their goals. A dark empathetic coach will put their ego, need for success, and experience above the client.

A common example of dark coaching is the coach who never lets their client go. They may try to keep the client longer than necessary by preying on their client's emotional insecurities and promising to “fix” these blocks. They may also give advice and praise, creating a co-dependent client/coach relationship, making the client feel as though they cannot achieve success without the coach. As coaches who have received certification, we know that it is never our job to “fix” our clients, nor promise anything we can’t deliver on. We exist to partner with our clients so that they can achieve their own maximum potential, realize that they have the power and answers inside themselves, and we allow them to be the center of their own coaching process.

How to avoid dark empathy?

Ultimately, most coaches want to earn an income. The client is paying us for a service and it may become tempting to chase a paycheck or glory rather than looking out for our client’s best interest.

Many coaches then run the opposite direction. They feel guilty for charging what they are worth. Don’t be. The client is choosing to pay for your expertise, objective viewpoint, and collaboration on a goal and outcome. By making the client the expert and the focus, letting go of attachment and ego, and remaining in a place of curiosity and trust, a coach avoids dark empathy and stays present with the client during a session. Being able to recognize and navigate a client’s emotions then becomes the way in which a coach is able to facilitate client growth and maximize their potential.


Thank you,

Lisa Finck, Brooke Adair Walters, Jerome LeDuff Jr, Anthony Lopez, Mike James, and Jen Long!

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