There’s nothing more frustrating and disheartening than feeling that your boss is undermining your efforts to do your best at work. Maybe it seems intentional, maybe it seems just who s/he is. Whatever the origin, the toll on your morale and performance is heartbreakingly wasteful.

What to do? You’ve almost certainly tried everything you could think of.

Maybe you’ve managed to largely insulate yourself from contact with him or her, so your anger and frustration erupt less often. But as with most work-arounds, there’s still a subtle price, a blockage to whole-hearted engagement. Those vent sessions with a coworker who’s equally frustrated generally leave a bad taste.

Believe it or not, here’s where the neuroscience of empathy can help.

Empathy is often thought to be knowing how another person feels. In the context of trying to defuse a conflictual relationship, a broader definition works better. Think of empathy as the ability to stand in another person’s shoes, accessing how s/he might experience a given situation. The empathic knowing we’re talking about is more than intellectual. It’s closer to intuition, intuiting a complex of hopes, worries, fears, self doubt and/or pride that’s getting lit up in a situation. Yes, it’s simply what you can imagine, or intuit, and there’s no guarantee it’s accurate. But the effort itself, to deeply understand the factors working on another person, shifts the quality of the space between you. You’ve shifted from judgment to curiosity.

The field of neuroscience is providing new input about our ability to develop, and strengthen, the capacity for empathy. The release of certain neurochemicals (oxytocin and vasopressin in particular) seems to be linked to forms of social bonding, including empathy and trust. Further, this linkage seems to be circular, so that acts of kindness or trust release oxytocin, and oxytocin release in turn stimulates feelings of empathy and emotional connection. This occurs even between total strangers.

A number of experimental studies have tested the strength (durability and longevity) of the increased empathy and feeling of connection. How long do those feelings last? Do they occur only in friendly or benign interpersonal situations? Can they transform a strongly negative emotional reaction?

Studies using the Buddhist metta (loving kindness) meditation practice* seem to show some degree of carryover from meditation to real-life, and some degree of impact even in strongly negative situations. What’s most interesting is that these positive effects get stronger and more lasting with practice. It seems that an active practice of cultivating kindness gradually lays down new neural networks that can be “remembered” or reactivated even under increasingly challenging conditions. If this is true in relation to kindness, isn’t it likely also true in relation to empathy?

An important caveat: Research shows that to get the benefits of the oxytocin <-> empathy loop to improve a toxic situation or relationship, you must first extend empathy to yourself. Take some time, perhaps in meditation, to connect with the layers of strong emotion that go with feeling thwarted in your desire to do a good job. Let your bruised heart have your attention and concern, as much as it needs. When you’re ready to extend empathy to your boss, take your time as you try to step imaginatively into his/her shoes. Return to yourself again if you find yourself getting reactivated.

From this self-caring vantage point, what becomes clear about the points of friction with your boss? Can you see a way in which both his/her concerns and yours can be addressed? If not, can you imagine initiating a conversation that begins with naming his/her concerns, and offering your willingness to help? Something like, “I know you’re concerned about reducing overtime. I have some ideas, if you’d like to hear them.”

Even if improvement seems slow or absent, remember: the brain is plastic. If you continue to strengthen your capacity to stand in someone else’s shoes in the midst of negativity, you may find the empathy skill grows in unexpected directions. Maybe you come up with an idea for a totally new approach to your boss. Contraction is replaced by expansion, and fresh inspiration becomes possible.

*There’s a good description of the Buddhist metta practice, as well as more detail on the neuroscience involved, in Rick Hanson’s Wise Brain article:

Author's Bio: 

Nina Ham is a certified career coach and a licensed psychotherapist. Her company, Success from the Inside Out, offers programs and services for developing the skills, attitudes and habits for business and career success. Taking Spirit to Work ( is a new venture supporting those searching for meaningful work through twice-weekly, no-cost 20-minute guided group meditation sessions right in the middle of your workday, where and when you need it the most. Subscribe to her ezine ( to learn of new programs.