When Empathy Is Overwhelming: A Team Discussion Guide

Karen Faith
Sub Rosa
Published in
7 min readMar 26, 2020


The most heartening news is that we are all in this together, albeit from a distance. Communities are finding new channels of connection and we are witnessing a collective effort at a scale never before seen in our lifetime. But our togetherness in this crisis is also the very thing which makes it the disaster it is. Every one of us has had our life upended. And every business is facing urgent, critical challenges which must be addressed by a team made entirely of people with upended lives.

That micro-summary doesn’t begin to express the range of impact, from the personal to the global, and for many, managing even a single day’s input can feel dizzying as we refocus big picture to small picture and back again. To help us refocus, we lean into Applied Empathy, Sub Rosa’s approach to leadership and problem solving. Specifically, the seven Empathic Archetypes.

The Empathic Archetypes describe seven modes of being, like musical keys one can modulate between, which identify ways of relating to others.

The Confidant is a trusted listener, while the Convener is an intuitive host. The Cultivator is a nurturing strategist, and the Sage’s gift is to be present. Seekers take risks, Inquirers ask questions, and Alchemists tinker and test.

These aren’t personalities; they are response styles we use like gears to adapt to others empathically. While we may feel more familiar with one or two of them, all seven are available to each of us at any time. The practice of Applied Empathy amounts to choosing our responses with intention, rather than defaulting to our personal comfort zones. In order to make that choice empathically, it is helpful to build fluency in each archetypal skill, so that we can choose the best approach over the easiest one.

We use the archetype framework to practice empathy in our individual relationships as well as those at the brand level. However, in light of the current crisis, the very notion of empathy can be wholly overwhelming. How do we adapt to so much so quickly? How do we begin to take the perspectives of others in a moment we are still adapting to ourselves? In order to help, we have created a discussion starter for teams to help organize and orient our responses, from the individual level to the level of team, community, and industry. Share these prompts with your colleagues as a structure for discussion, planning, and action.

Empathic Archetypes Discussion Guide


The Alchemist is an experimenter, prototyper, and tester of the new. The least common strength among individuals we have observed, Alchemist energy and ideas are currently surging globally. Our habits and routines have all been interrupted. Even the most consistent among us is forced to find new paths, new tools, and new routines. From the individual to the organization, we are globally in a state of high Alchemist behavior, and while it may be largely against our will, there is a lot we can learn from this moment. This is a time when mistakes are more easily forgiven, less-than-mastery is acceptable, and untested processes, products, and services have a much more substantial (if also riskier) shot at success, as our massive community seeks new solutions. We are literally prototyping a new world while living in it.

For team discussion:

  • How comfortable do you feel with experimentation?
  • Where might we test a new idea right now?
  • Has your daily life changed in any surprising or positive ways?
  • How might a collective mindset of experimentation be of value to us?


The Confidant is the one who listens and honors the trust of others. Individuals who default to listening mode are often introverted and may be more at ease than their extroverted counterparts with the new norms of distancing. What’s more, we are seeing an explosion of social media use as extroverts reach out to maintain their communities and introverts open up in a mediated comfort zone. The opportunity for cultural listening now is extraordinary, and our communications as companies and brands will be so much more relevant, powerful, and authentic if we take the time to deeply listen before rushing to speak.

For team discussion:

  • How has your social media use changed over the last few weeks?
  • What are you hearing repeatedly? What has stood out?
  • How might our team listen better?
  • How does our research include the voices of others?


The Convener is the host, who anticipates needs, cultivates belonging, and creates purposeful, effective environments and experiences for others. As gathering in-person has been temporarily taken off the table, convening as we know it is over. And while strong Conveners grieve, we are gifted an unfathomable opportunity and responsibility to reinvent the meaning of togetherness. It is essential to understand and accept that our new way of life will not be a 1-to-1 translation of what we knew before. It is not enough to assume our in-the-flesh experiences can be replaced with video conferencing technology. We need thoughtful, human-centered innovation here, and we need it now.

For team discussion:

  • What successes and failures have you witnessed in adapted convening?
  • How might we reimagine our connections from a purpose-centered perspective?
  • What needs are unmet by technologically-mediated convening?
  • How might we meet them?


The Cultivator is characterized by a remarkable ability to delay gratification, see the long game, and invest consistently with small actions toward composing an intentional future. As we face an incomprehensible breadth of uncertainty, individuals with a strong Cultivator mindset may be the most distressed. Take a moment to consider those on your team who are adept at long-term planning, and check in with them. There is a strong possibility that they are well beyond their capacity for unknown variables. Even so, planning and investing must be done. Under the circumstances, it may help to consider planning from the perspective of principles rather than outcomes. For example, “we will travel west” may replace “we will drive to Los Angeles.”

For team discussion:

  • How has uncertainty impacted your personal plans?
  • What shorter-term cultivations (personal or professional) may offer relief and value?
  • What are the guiding principles (beliefs, values) which can help define our long-term strategy?
  • How might we compose more agile and adaptive strategies?


The Inquirer archetype is the investigator and curious coach. Currently, questions outnumber answers by several orders of magnitude, and much of the still-unknown is vital to our survival, individually and collectively. As misinformation proliferates, our Inquirer skills must rise to the occasion. Researchers and planners are similarly challenged to continue without certainty, as the structures and tools they have relied on are now unstable. At the personal level, Inquirer skills can be life-affirming in a time of isolation. We are experiencing our friends and colleagues asking about one another, checking in, and coaching each other through contingency planning with thoughtfulness and empathic curiosity. This is a small, but potent win.

For team discussion:

  • What role is curiosity playing in your coping strategies?
  • What new questions are you asking now, personally or professionally?
  • What questions are we afraid to ask?
  • How might our research practice better support our planning and responsiveness?


The Sage is gifted with the ability to be uncommonly present in the moment. Presence as we practice it takes two distinct forms: witnessing and participating. To witness is to observe with curiosity, neutrality, and distance, while participation is marked by engagement and immersion in an experience. Now that we are, as a socially distanced culture, addressing boredom at scale, it is noteworthy to mention that boredom is a symptom of imbalance between the witnessing self and the participating self. The proliferation of new hobbies, online activity groups, and thoughtful commentary is evidence of attempts to find balance. We see opportunity for dozens of industries to enter in this space.

For team discussion:

  • How does discomfort change your relationship to presence in the moment?
  • What attempts have you made to balance witnessing and participating, even unwittingly?
  • How might we balance our public presence effectively?
  • Where are there opportunities for us to show up meaningfully and at what moment?


The Seeker is the bold, passionate risk taker, ready to leap whatever the odds. With the notable exception of a vaguely Seekery vibe inspiring TMI social posting and pantsless video calls, it can be assumed that Seeker energy is at a low. Risk is extraordinarily difficult to calculate at the moment, as even the smallest action–buying groceries, for example–carries significant implications. But the confidence, courage, and leadership inherent in the Seeker is more vital than ever. As our realities are shaken at the foundation, those with the zeal and tenacity to carry a torch forward will be followed by a great many. This is a time to consider boldness in a new light and offer our leadership in service to others.

For team discussion:

  • Have you experienced even a brief wave of leap-taking energy?
  • What is the difference between fear and caution?
  • Where do we have the authority, resources, and perspective to lead with boldness?
  • How do we repair injuries to our faith, confidence, and courage?

As a fellow team in flux, we offer you this guide with encouragement and solidarity as we rebuild our world together. Please write to appliedempathy@wearesubrosa.com for more information on Applied Empathy tools, virtual workshops, or empathic assessment. We are here with you.



Karen Faith
Sub Rosa

Karen Faith is an ethnographer and founder of Others Unlimited, empathy training for research, collaboration, and citizenship.