Empathy and why we need to get better at it


It started with a text conversation.

Me: I am getting into the Brokenwood Mysteries -2nd time around. I can’t help but notice that the police station is accessible – ramp and handrails. This is so unlike Death in Paradise – steep narrow steps up to the police station and no handrails. Amazing what you notice and value with a certain lived experience bias.

She: Hah, I notice that too now. I endlessly tut-tut about it.

Me: Oh dear! We are both suffering from EIS – Exclusion Intolerance Syndrome.

She: I wonder if it’s contagious? If only …

Me: I fear you need to develop a vulnerability first. 😵‍💫

She: Ah, if only a solid dose of empathy was enough to get you there. That would get the community going.

Discovering empathy

An upshot from this interchange was that I decided to explore what was available on empathy via Google. I was mildly alarmed by the high number of academic articles that came up in response to the search term ‘empathic communication’.

I gathered a selection of essays, abstracts, blogs and guides from a 15-minute search:

  • Extending the empathic communication model of burnout. A search for alternative ways to reduce caregiver burnout (Abstract only)
  • 4 Ways to Communicate with More Empathy
  • 10 ways to communicate with empathy and authority in times of crisis
  • Conceptualising Empathy Competence: A Professional Communication Perspective
  • Empathic Communication: Why it is Important at Work
  • Empathy and Communication: A Model of Empathy Development (Abstract only)
  • How Leaders Develop an Empathic Communication Style
  • The Power of Empathy and Communication Symmetry

I found a definition of empathy from Wikipedia: Empathy is generally described as the ability to take on another’s perspective, to understand, feel and possibly share and respond to their experience. There are more (sometimes conflicting) definitions of empathy that include but is not limited to social, cognitive, and emotional processes primarily concerned with understanding others. Often times, empathy is considered to be a broad term, and broken down into more specific concepts and types that include cognitive empathy, emotional (or affective) empathy, somatic empathy, and spiritual empathy. 

Empathy is still a topic of research. The major areas of research include the development of empathy, the genetics and neuroscience of empathy, cross-species empathy, and the impairment of empathy. Some researchers have made efforts to quantify empathy through different methods, such as from questionnaires where participants can fill out and then be scored on their answers. Some other research discusses the effects of empathy, benefits and issues caused by a lack of or an abundance of empathy.

Discussions of empathy are common in the fields of ethics, politics, business, medicine, culture, and fiction.

But all this is head stuff

My phone has the Oxford Dictionary, which defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” However, I am not so sure I agree it has anything to do with “understanding”.  I try to understand empathy to be about resonating with another’s emotional state – feeling what they are feeling as best we can.

There is, in the above, material, a clear acknowledgement that empathy is a vital capacity that is often absent when its presence would have made things much better for one party in a transaction. This is the thing that has changed – how the other party feels matters. It once didn’t.

Traditions of unequal relations of power and authority have made disinterest in the feelings of the weaker party the norm. Now we are acting to change that, but we are starting from a disadvantage.

Empathy is what we mostly reserve for our in-group, and more usually an intimate inner group. But even then, it can be impaired by traumatic life experiences. Men, for example, have long been dissuaded from being empathic in general. 

Some of us naturally strive to be universally empathic – and do a decent job of living their ideals. Most of us are selective, and others have an impaired capacity to even meet our personal needs for empathic connection.

Time to change

Thomas Kuhn famously observed that science progresses one funeral at a time. He was noting how beliefs are changed often only when ardent adherents die. This is true of values and attitudes – as each younger generation knows. Hence empathy is better known to younger members of our community than those much older.

Empathy has been a problem for those in power for a few decades now – as the less powerful members of organisations are accorded more dignity and rights. This applies to people with disability and members of other minority/diversity groups. You can’t have equity without empathy. And equity is a problematic thing for people accustomed to believing that power and authority bring with them unequal entitlements – to which they aspire.

In past decades staff members were often regarded as the ‘wetware’ in the organisational machinery – somewhat more flexible, and valued for that, but also dispensable. As our cultural values have evolved that attitude has been challenged in legislation, policy and, to a growing degree, in practice.

But so long as organisational leadership is dominated by masculine culture and expectations of privilege, empathy will continue to be confined largely to defined groups that attract personal interest.

We also portion empathy out according to who we feel merits it. Some members of our community are embraced by a spirit of compassion expressed by service providers. Others are not. They feel chastened, and even oppressed by the ‘service’ visited upon them. In the human services field, the absence of empathy in engaging with service recipients can be considered morally just.

Power disparities exist between service providers and service recipients in the same way as between leaders and subordinates. Cultural values that have become part of the organisation’s culture will foster or impede the expression of empathy – depending on what motivates those cultural values.

How do we change this?

We need to think of power structures, cultures, and individuals as a triad in which empathy can be weak or strong, and fostered or impeded in each element.

Individuals are the critical element. Their ability to be empathic varies widely. Empathy isn’t a capability assessed in recruitment. It’s a random factor. Depending on life experiences, beliefs, and community of origin, individuals may exhibit empathy on a spectrum toward the people they work with and customers/service users. That spectrum goes from loving inclusion to abusive exclusion.

Work cultures are not just how individual work together. They are also beliefs and values that influence how the work done is understood in economic, social, or moral terms.

Organisational power structures are comprised of leadership cultures which determine how governance policies, procedures, and practices are complied with, enforced, or celebrated.

The potential for greater empathy in each element is undoubted, but nothing can substantially evolve without individual commitment to personal change.


I came across an article by Priya Nalkur in Psychology Today titled Love and Inclusion: Intersecting Pathways to Fulfillment – Love and inclusion meet in leadership to build empathy, belonging, and equity.

My immediate response was, “Wow! Psychology has been evolving well away from its heady roots and into engaging with emotions.” It is possible to engage with empathy on an authentic heart level and remain within an intellectual discipline. This is where we have to get before we can have shared conversations about how to be more empathic at work. The articles I noted at the beginning see empathy as a problem to be solved intellectually. That isn’t enough.

I checked out Psychology Today and found it a potential great source for what I see as properly integrated psychological insight. I wanted to subscribe, but that’s only for 3D publications which don’t suit my accessibility needs.

I was reminded that I have seen the same evolution reflected in The Psychology Podcast, which I get through my Apple podcast app.

We are not going to confidently grow empathy unless we can talk about it freely, authentically, and competently. It helps, then, if we can learn contemporary ideas about empathy grounded in sound psychological research.

I have had to learn that being empathic isn’t easy for everyone. Some of us must work at expressing what we feel with comfort and confidence. That takes intention and commitment and a degree of courage to be awkward at first. I am getting there – slower than I’d like, but I am making progress.

Is success the enemy of real inclusion?


This will seem like an odd question to ask. What inspired it was a discussion about a diversity group’s celebratory plans even though there were several pain points that were not being addressed.

It wasn’t that I was thinking that the celebratory themes had no value, only that In a hierarchy of priorities for attention and effort they were placed higher than issues that were causing real distress.

Did this also apply to disability? I needed to reflect on this.

What happened to activism?

Activism, as I understand it, is action taken to address pain points – hazards that have psychological, social, or physical harmful consequences. For example, exclusion of a person with a mobility disability from a work or social venue because of the absence of a ramp or other safe means of access can have multiple adverse consequences. An activist might take action to ensure safe access as a matter of some urgency.

There are other legitimate themes for disability inclusion advocates which require persistent and long-term action. These may be characterised as attitudinal, procedural, and practice changes which are accepted as a change willingly undertaken by the organisation – but which then become bogged down. For example, when I joined my DEN as a founding member in July 2010, I agitated for a workplace adjustment policy for people with disabilities not caused by workplace accidents. The idea was taken up by the department and it was absorbed into HR business activity. When I became DEN chair in November 2016 we had no policy yet, though it was being developed.

A sense of urgency that is typical of activism fades when a proposed change is accepted by the organisation, and it becomes part of business-as-usual. 

Urgency v bureaucratic process

Most business-as-usual processes are not driven by a sense of urgency. There are legitimate reasons why some changes in procedure or practice can’t happen quickly. But often it’s about resources – personnel and funding. This is about managing ‘competing priorities’ – the bane of so many mangers.

Because disability inclusion isn’t seen as a work health and safety (WHS) concern the risk of harm (psychological or physical) that arises from any form of exclusion or inaccessibility isn’t given the same weight as regular WHS issues. And even so, psychological health remains under-valued – probably because physical harm is seen as more real than psychical harm.

There are legitimate concerns about how risk of harm is categorised, and this isn’t a discussion for here. What I want to emphasise is that what is initiated via activism loses the urgency momentum when the demand for change is accepted by the organisation. The importance of real pain and harm of exclusion is recalibrated with tacit acknowledgement that an organisation ‘must do better’. How it ‘will do better’ is rarely monitored with the same passion that drove the initial alert.

I see a role for disability inclusion advocates as conveyors of civil impatience about the progress of agreed and accepted changes to policy, procedure, and practice. The sense of urgency that drove the initial activism should not be relaxed. Instead, there should be a steady reminder that the issue is about the safety and welfare of staff and real people are suffering while the agreed change is developed and implemented.

Capture of the activist’s passion

There is not a huge difference between an organisation refusing to make changes and agreeing to act but not doing so in a timely manner. What starts off as good news fades when the proposed action is simply added to the business-as-usual menu. 

This is not to suggest any intentional or cynical intent. Business-as-usual has its own hazards – lack of resources, loss of attention, cause champions move on, and the progressive devaluing of the need for change in the general politics of getting stuff done. 

Add to that the need for work unit managers who are given the task of introducing the change to maintain a good relationship with their executive leaders.  That relationship is key to getting things done. But these executive leaders may have no understanding of, or commitment to, the issue as originally expressed – and may be under pressure to address ‘higher’ priorities.

It is also easy for an activist to become dependent on maintaining the peace within their workplace hierarchy and culture in terms of their own career – but also be seen still loyal to the cause.

This isn’t a moral observation – just a reflection of a reality – and hence the need for higher order skills in driving change.

Recovery of civil impatience

Disability inclusion has the goal of ending suffering. Neuroscience has allowed us to understand that exclusion from a group triggers responses that are not unrelated to physical pain. ‘Ending suffering’ can seem to be rhetorical overkill until we understand that Complex Post Traumatic Stress can be precipitated by psychological crises. Bullying, isolation, or exclusion can all do it. Promising change and not acting in a timely manner adds insult to injury – and that insult causes harm too.

So, acceptance of an issue by an organisation isn’t ‘job done’. It simply shifts the nature of activism into a different phase. The urgency wasn’t just about an issue being accepted as a need for changes to policy, procedure, or practice. The urgency was/is about ending the suffering.

This new kind of activism requires different skills and insights relative to the passion to have the issue acknowledged. As DEN Chair I ensured the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT) behaved as a de facto business unit – professional, knowledgeable, and diplomatic. We consulted with business areas to apply steady pressure to drive desired change. Some things still took a long time. 

Organisations are change resistant and nothing about an organisation’s culture or processes is conducive to rapid change. But change moves faster when senior executives ‘get it’. Managing up is a critical skill that all activists must acquire and master. So too is influencing workplace cultures in a way that skilfully keeps the sense of civil impatience alive but without degenerating into militancy and deficit finding. Seeking to activate positive potential is the only way to progress.

The appeal of inertia

Inertia is attractive to both sides. Gentle wheel spinning indicates effort is being applied. Organisational resistance isn’t denial. Those who are on side may be sincere allies but the reality they are working with isn’t conducive to change happening at a decent pace.

And inertia can take the heat off on both sides. This isn’t a criticism, just a reflection of reality. The human reality of ‘managing competing demands’ tells us that if things are ‘progressing’ that may have to ‘good enough’ for the time being. We have done enough within our means. Pushing for things to change faster can seem rude and impolitic. It can get supporters off-side.

Activists also have other dimensions to their lives that will ‘compete’ with their cause. Okay, that said, there are activists who will want to reach through their screens and grab me by the throat. But they are in the minority.

Here there must be a distinction between activists who persist in one mode and those who shift modes to adapt to the new environment in which to exert influence of a different order. This transition isn’t something every activist will find easy or even desirable. So, having done a job within a capability range, it is fair to imagine ‘job done’.

This is part of the cognitive fallacy that suggests that the effort to convince an organisation to make changes is done when that demand is accepted. It’s as though the momentum from the initiating activism is transferred and perpetuated in the organisation’s business-as-usual environment.

This isn’t reality. 

The holistic perspective

Success in getting an issue on the agenda for change is only the first step. Its an important part of the process of driving change, but it is not, of itself, sufficient.

Effective activism doesn’t assert ‘mission accomplished’ until the cause of suffering has been acknowledged and addressed – and the suffering has ceased.

It is tempting to see activism as just a form of moral combat struggling against unjust resistance. However, the moral momentum can be crudely expressed and expended long before the cause of suffering has been resolved.

A holistic perspective on a cause will see how multiple factors play out to create the suffering that triggers the activism. We can delve into evolutionary psychology to understand the impulses that drive individuals and groups to act as they do. We can explore organisational psychology to understand why workplace cultures act as they do. We can interrogate social psychology to appreciate how evolving values change our expectations, but not always our conduct. And we can look at ourselves to see what excites our concern and compassion – and what gives us permission to back off from what was once urgent.


Activism is hard. We are driven to a desire to end suffering and then reality hits us with a wall of resistance. Drawing attention to suffering does not mean that everyone will jump to end it. It would be wonderful if that is all it takes. 

Many will express sincere intent that it ends. But intent dies without will. And the will to change is often snarled in a thicket of existential complexities. It is easy and tempting to craft a story that celebrates moral virtue battling against ‘evil’ resistors.

I paused before writing of suffering because it could be mistaken for manipulative hyperbole. But then I thought it might be useful to remind activists that this is what they responded to in the first place – and the efforts to drive change that remain not done.

I don’t know when Diversity and Inclusion teams became a thing. But I remember when they were not even imagined, and any suggestion they might be good idea was laughed at.

Disability activism became a thing in the 1960s (along with a lot of other themes). My former department created a Disability Employee Network in July 2010 even though it had been engaged in disability matters for at least the preceding 30 years.

As a culture we continue to evolve toward greater inclusion. There are arguments about when this became a passion – the ending of slavery, women’s suffrage? In any case its being going on for a few centuries, and the scope of our inclusive embrace has been getting wider. We have been doing this precisely to end the suffering that arises from exclusion from our sense of shared humanity. That task becomes more complex and challenging as we seek to make changes at societal, communal, and organisational levels. The activist must evolve with the challenge.

In an organisational context, the low hanging fruit has been harvested over the past few decades. Its time to stand tall and go after the rest. That means acquiring deeper understanding and developing more refined skills – if we care enough to do so..

On recruitment of people with disability


This has been stimulated by recent conversations and is based on the NSW public sector’s current practices. The state has an expressed commitment to employing more people with disability, which I do not doubt is sincere. However, experience doesn’t necessarily match.

There is a widespread belief that bias can be mitigated by brief training efforts – in disability awareness, in inclusion and diversity and in combatting bias. There is no evidence I am aware of that confirms such efforts do any good. Indeed, there is evidence the outcome is contrary to the intent. Brief training doesn’t stick as a rule and must be backed up by revisiting and active reflection on the training. This doesn’t usually happen, so participants in such training can be misled that they have been ‘trained’ in bias mitigation.

Under that error many will assume that this brief cognitive input has made them sufficiently aware of bias to ensure they will not be swayed by it. If only it were that simple!

Effective bias mitigation requires two key things – intentional and conscious awareness in company of at least one other person engaged in the same endeavour to mitigate bias and specific practices designed to reduce the risk of bias. 

Here I want to focus on the second factor via 3 elements of the selection process – initial assessment of applications, adjustments at interview and the composition of the assessment panel. 

The elimination of disadvantage and bias in recruitment isn’t simple, but a more systemised approach will go a long way to reducing risk.  Recruitment is often undertaken by people with limited or no experience in selection processes. It’s common for the manager of the work unit to convene the selection panel and determine its members. This is a huge risk area that could be significantly reduced by ensuring all recruitment is undertaken by recruitment professionals. This is, however, not about to happen, so mitigating the consequent risk must become a priority.

I am not entirely disparaging training efforts. In fact, I do think that effective training in bias mitigation has benefits wider than recruitment. However, we must understand the limits of well-intentioned training and ensure its not the only strategy employed.

Initial assessment of applications

Depending on roles applications may comprise different phases. Research into ‘decision-making hygiene’ provides good arguments for each step being assessed separately, and candidates rated for that step. This approach will produce an aggregate score which will rank applicants.

An advertisement for a Senior Project Officer that I saw recently had only 4 stages – a cover letter (a page), responses to 2 questions (a page per question), the CV, and the interview. Assessment is theoretically based on identified core capabilities from the Capability Framework. There can 4-6 capabilities which must be addressed. However, asking a candidate to demonstrate they meet these capabilities required and assessing them against them is a hit and miss affair.

I question the value of the first 2 steps because the requested excessive brevity seemed to me to diminish the value of what was asked for relative to what is being assessed. There are, I believe fundamental problems in asking for elements in a selection process that can’t be usefully assessed toward ranking an applicant.

This example can hence only be used as a thinking model rather than an instance of a workable approach.

Nevertheless, ideally this situation would lead to 4 assessment steps, each rated only against other candidates’ same submissions. For example, all cover letters would be assessed together and ranked. This would be ideally done with names masked.

The advantage of this approach is that the interview tends to be the determining assessment step. This is where applicants with disability are most vulnerable, and where bias can really kick in. A strong candidate may have 3 high scores from the other steps which could off-set a weaker interview performance.

The disadvantage is that it takes discipline and more time to make this approach work and will not be preferred by busy hiring managers, regardless of their obligation to minimise bias. It would have to be a mandatory approach.

Culling applications

The NSW public sector theoretically uses the Capability Framework to identify usually 4-6 focus capabilities which a role is considered to require. This would be a great idea if the intended rationale was uniformly employed.

It would be sensible to cull applications depending on the quality of demonstrated fit against the focus capabilities. These capabilities are skills, not experiences, so a CV isn’t a fair source – unless the applicant has been advised to write a CV highlighting capabilities. This, so far as I am aware does not happen. Ads for roles do not direct applicants to the capability framework or how to prepare a CV. This might disadvantage external applicants if assessment against capabilities was uniformly practised. 

Absent the CV in the example considered here the assessment panel is left with the cover letter and the targeted questions. If these are not designed to elicit responses related to the focus capabilities, there is a serious question to be asked about what logic is employed to cull applications.

This question matters because the default rationale for culling may be the CV. CVs are not easy to interpret. For example, a long-term public sector employee may have no awareness of a private sector role, especially in relation to capabilities. In essence, a CV should not be used to cull applications where the focus is on capability rather than experience.

This matters to an applicant with disability because their disability may have disrupted work experience.

What is needed is a standard focus capability based initial written element of sufficient word length to give an applicant with disability a fair shot at making it to interview.

This could be as basic as saying “Here are the focus capabilities for this role. In no more than xxx words please tell us how you meet them. Your response will be used to assess whether you are one of the xx applicants to progress to interview.” This could replace both the cover letter and the 2 questions. A word limit per capability should be set.

Assessment by capability rather than experience is a good approach in my view, but it must be governed by a strong methodology which breaks the habits of past practices.

Adjustments for interviews

The opportunity to ask for an adjustment at the interview stage is universal these days. But this mostly relates to physical accessibility. Requests for adjustments for other reasons are not yet common. Physical or sensory accessibility requests are usually easy to accommodate. In addition, such disabilities tend to be evident.

There is, however, a wider variety of disabilities which are ‘invisible’, which may not be something a candidate feels comfortable disclosing, or which may not be thought to be a disability.

The standard practice is to give candidates around 20 minutes to preview 4-6 interview questions shortly before the interview. We have been doing this for decades. I can remember when getting the questions in advance was an innovation – and thought be some as going soft on candidates. 

It’s a silly practice as it is. At best it’s a quiz under an unnecessary time pressure. It measures nothing useful and significantly disadvantages a wide range of people with disability. This includes people who are neuroatypical, people with anxiety, and people with sensory or motor impairments. 

This spectrum of people also includes many who do consider themselves as a person with disability. Some anxiety states are situationally triggered for a variety of reasons. For example, anxiety can be induced by public speaking, singing in public, disclosing personal information in a new group, sitting exams, and job interviews. Impaired performance under a state of anxiety is not indicative of performance in general.

Interview questions serve a purpose in asking candidates to express ideas clearly to show understanding of a role’s dimensions and requirements. They are not intended to be quizzes, as they once were. When we understand that history, we can appreciate that current practices are not only out of date they can be seriously discriminatory.

The solution is to eliminate the pointless hothouse pressure of having a scant 20 minutes to review 4-6 questions and prepare responses. There are 2 further problems with this practice.

Questions should be designed to elicit responses related to the identified capabilities and some questions have 2 elements in them. I reviewed 4 questions from a panel in 2022 and 3 had 2 elements, making a total of 7 questions to be considered in the limited time made available. It was also not clear how the questions related to the capabilities.

I have proposed giving all candidates the questions 3 days in advance. Others, with more experience in contemporary recruitment, think 5 days is better.

I proposed 3 days for all candidates after an applicant was given the questions several days in advance because of their disability. It was the right thing to do. But it also gave them and unintended advantage. The only way to meet their adjustment need and be fair to all is to ensure everyone has the same opportunity. The disadvantage and the unintended advantage are both eliminated. It is a truly inclusive step.

The panel members

I have been an independent on panels that have been skilfully run, and it was a pleasure to have been part of such a high-quality exercise. I have no doubt that well-run panels that reduce the bias risk are real, but they are not as common as we’d like.

As well as being a person with disability and a former DEN Chair I have an extensive background in recruitment. Because of this I feel comfortable taking my role as the ‘independent’ literally. The independent may be the key to ensuring that the bias risk is reduced – if that status is recognised in a more formal way.

The most important change to recruitment practices would be to develop a pool of formally recognised and independent panel members (Inclusion Independents) who are trained in recruitment practice and bias mitigation. Each selection panel would be randomly assigned a pool member who would certify that the recruitment exercise met minimal standards for bias mitigation. 

The independent would have standing in the human resources team, so if clear bias was encountered the recruitment could be suspended until a solution was developed.

Identified roles

This is a vexed area that stirs strong emotions that are vented in advocacy, but rarely in opposition. Arguments against are rarely plainly stated or defended. It merits a more substantial consideration than I can accommodate here.

I will simply observe that in sympathy with the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, where roles concern disability they should be filled only by people with the experience of living with disability – unless specialised qualifications are required.

The theme of identified roles attracts a lot of heat and little honest debate. It is an argument that must be had. But when it comes to roles directly related to disability, I think there is no legitimate argument to be had.


Eradication of bias is a nice target, but likely unattainable. But very significant reduction is realistic. I have addressed only 3 elements of the recruitment process to demonstrate that bias reduction isn’t a serious challenge in itself – so long as a disciplined methodology is developed and implemented. But there are challenges in establishing disciplined uniform methods. These require a commitment by senior management to ensure bias mitigation methods are consistently implemented.

Effective bias mitigation in recruitment benefits everyone, not just people with disability.

I have had over 6 years’ experience in recruitment as a job and many times since as a member of selection panels. My success rate as an applicant is about 50:50. 

Effective recruitment is difficult. It is a far more skilled affair than most appreciate. Sometimes the choice is a standout no brainer. But it often comes down to finding reasons to exclude an applicant on a fine point. After all you can offer a role to only one person.

You can exclude applicants through the initial coarse sieve of culling. Here obvious acts of discrimination can eliminate an applicant on grounds of gender, race or assumed religion – to mention a few common excluders.

The finer sieve of assessment through interview is where applicants with disability are at greatest risk. This is where the strongest protections must be located. The most potent is, I believe, the genuine accredited independent. That said, this isn’t a substitute for other bias mitigation efforts, just a bulwark against their ineffectuality until things substantially evolve.