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.

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