On Empathy

Among all my research topics, empathy is the one that brought up most controversy, most conflicting data, and most confusion. In hindsight, I can say that this amount of confusion directly reflected how incorrect our general cultural notions of empathy, and most corporate guidelines around it, are. Let’s dive in, starting with the definition that emerged from the data.

Empathy is a practice of connecting, and being unconditionally present, to someone else’s emotional experience.

Wait, wait, Jorge… Isn’t this what we’ve already heard a million times? This vague, wishy-washy, poetic rhetoric about emotional connection? It may look so at first sight, but the power of this definition unfolds when you pay attention to detail and see it in the context.

  1. As my data testified against the culture, empathy is a practice, not an attitude or a personality trait. Empathy isn’t the privilege of those big-hearted, compassionate people who naturally have an abundance of it. Instead, much like parallel parking and swimming breaststroke, it’s a complex skillset that can be learned and taught. The problem is, since our cultural narratives around empathy are largely inaccurate, we learn it the wrong way. A mistaken concept drives a mistaken implementation. As a result, it causes us and other people problems (e.g. professional burnout in social work, activism, and medical professions) instead of fostering meaningful, mutually beneficial connection.

  2. In another case against the cultural myths, empathy requires to connect to the emotions that underpin a person’s experience, and not the circumstances or superficial particulars of that experience. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial this difference is. Whether or not we can identify to the circumstances of another person depends on the great randomness of life, and most of the time we don’t get such a chance. Even if we can (for example, we had similar circumstances in our workplace or family life), it does not necessarily mean that we understand and can connect to another’s experience – because their emotions beneath it might be quite different (that’s where projection bias gets in the way). Another consequence of misconceptualizing empathy as a function of connection to circumstances is hoarding empathy – meaning that we reserve our empathy for people whose circumstances mirror ours and deny it to everyone else.

  3. As a practice and a behavior, empathy inherently involves vulnerability, and healthy vulnerability cannot exist without boundaries. Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability, and empathy minus boundaries becomes enmeshment. In the context of empathy, boundaries mean maintaining emotional connection while being clear about where the other person ends and you begin. It is not taking a burden off someone’s shoulders and putting it on yours. Debunking another cultural myth, empathy is not feeling for people – it’s feeling along with them.

  4. The practice of empathy involves the whole human emotional spectrum, not just negative emotions. The misconception of empathy as “being sorry for someone” couldn’t be further from reality. We need empathy not any less (and perhaps even more) when we’re in love, delightful, excited, passionate than when we’re heartbroken, ashamed, or angry.

  5. Since empathy is about connecting to emotion and communicating back emotion, we need emotional literacy and granularity in order to practice it. On the one hand, we have to be strongly connected to our own emotional landscape and understand the differences between disappointment and frustration, guilt and shame, joy and happiness. On the other hand, we have to get good at accurately recognizing another’s emotion, and that can be sometimes difficult. Our natural instinct is to initially judge other people’s feelings from affect, which is the external, primarily non-verbal expression of their emotion (facial expression, voice tone, body language etc.) That judgment may be inaccurate because of both projection (we subconsciously expect others to communicate a particular emotion that same way we do) and cultural differences (people coming from different cultures, and even different familial backgrounds, are conditioned to communicate emotion differently).

    That’s where organizational cultures plays a huge role: leaders that understand and model the value of empathy normalize conversations and curiosity about emotions. That simply means, when we’re not sure what the other person is experiencing, before rushing to mirror their facial expression or say, I totally understand! I’m with you on it, brave leaders get vulnerable and curious. They ask questions. They say, Help me understand more about how you feel so I could be here for you in a meaningful way. Or, This looks like a hard experience for you, and the story I’m making up about your feelings now is A,B, and C. Help me reality-check it. I want to act from the truth, and not my assumptions.

    You have no idea how transformative such conversations are.

  6. In a way this follows naturally from the previous point: empathy involves an authentic intention to help the other person in a meaningful way – not by saying that you’re sorry or giving them a handout. The whole point of trying to understand how the other person feels is to then see what specifically we can do for them – and most of the time, we really can.

    That’s where my findings around empathy clash against traditional corporate cultures, particularly in the context of customer relations. The de-facto norm says that empathy at work is just about being nice, always smiling, or making a sad face and repeating the Goddamn S-word (sorry) when we see our customers being angry – but not doing anything meaningful to hold ourselves accountable and help them. In fact, it reduces empathy to niceness.

    Nothing can hurt the trust of customers towards a brand, or even the trust of employees towards their own organization, more than such poor practice of empathy. All the smiles and sorries are cheap and even abusive when they’re not followed by help for the distressed person.

  7. Empathy does not require you to see the world through the eyes of another person. This pervasive and utterly harmful cultural myth has made me exhausted over the years, as I debunked it to individual clients, fellow mental health professionals, social workers and corporate teams around the world. Evidence is clear: empathy requires perspective-taking, but it’s never possible to see the world exactly as someone else sees it. Just like the lens in our physical eye, the cognitive-emotional lens that we see the world through cannot be taken off; it’s shaped by our culture, identity, age, education, familial background and it’s soldered into our cognition. We cannot change or remove this lens.

    But to successfully take another’s perspective, this is not necessary. Just like good forecasting, true empathy requires us to aggregate perspectives, not to give up on our own. It implies that we accept the stories and experiences people share with us exactly as they are told to us, without trying to run them through our lens – or, the worst case scenario, the hypothetical model of their lens layered over our factual one – and then making judgments about how valid or invalid their feelings are and what they should do about it.

Empathy predictors

Asking for empathy always involves vulnerability – but there’s a very dangerous cultural mythology about who is safer to trust with our story and from whom we’re more likely to get an empathetic response. Basically, the mythology says that people most likely respond with empathy to our experience are people who went through the same situation.

I have alcoholic parents. This person also had alcoholic parents growing up. They’ll surely understand what my experience is like.

This person will get it because they’re also gay/black/female – unlike the privileged straight/white/male assholes who never do.

This person also has this rare disease. They will of course understand what living with it feels like for me.

But this is completely wrong. This kind of prediction is premised on the idea that empathy is about relating to circumstances, while in fact it’s about relating to emotions. Both from personal and therapeutic experience, I can give you countless examples of brutal empathic failures from people who “had it like us”. At the same time, just as many are the examples of truly empathetic, healing responses from people who never went through the same situation.

There’s a very weak correlation in, and therefore little predictive value of, situational alignment when it comes to the probability of an empathetic response.

In fact, people who “had it like us” could have had very different emotional responses. And people who by virtue of their privilege have gone through the same may nevertheless correctly recognize and fully connect to our emotional experience.

Throughout my data, there were four variables that emerged as strong predictors of an empathetic response:

  1. Emotional literacy and self-awareness. You cannot expect a person to understand and connect to your emotions if they don’t understand and connect to their own. If there’s only three emotions a person can identify – happy, sad, and pissed off – then it’s unlikely they will see the nuance and context in your experience and respond in a meaningful way. Remarkably, the higher is a person’s level of emotional literacy and granularity – i.e. the ability to differentiate between frustration and disappointment, guilt and shame, envy and anger – the more curious they become around recognizing another’s emotion, and the more aware they are that they too can make mistakes. That’s most emotionally literate people, when practicing empathy, ask you questions to better understand what specifically you’re feeling. They don’t rush to say, Oh sure! I get it because they’re that communicating back an emotion that doesn’t reflect your reality leads to empathic failure, which sometimes can be very traumatic.

  2. Tolerance for discomfort and vulnerability. If a person sucks at vulnerability and chooses what’s fun, fast, and easy over what is right – they’re likely a poor empathetic responder. According the empathy scholar Theresa Wiseman, four specific skills that inform empathy are staying out of judgment, perspective-taking, recognizing emotion, and communicating back emotion. All of them are underpinned by vulnerability. Perfectionism, cynicism, sarcasm, stoicism are kinds of dysfunctional cognitive-behavioral patterns that develop as a response to vulnerability issues. If you see those in a person, they likely suck at empathy – so think twice about whether practicing your vulnerability with them is a good idea. It may trigger an avalanche of difficult emotions for them that will be leveraged against you.

  3. Recognizing empathy as a core existential value. Empathy is a skillset, and it takes considerable cognitive and emotional bandwidth, aside from time and discomfort. It also gives back a lot if you practice it correctly, but just like in case with swimming breaststroke, you first have to commit to it. You have to stay on the lookout for the opportunities to practice it, and go out of your way when those spring up. It’s a proactive, conscious, and, in a culture we’re living these days, almost subversive commitment with considerable costs and considerable long-time rewards. For me, the best measurement of how big of a value something is to someone is the time they make for it. Therefore, people likely to respond with empathy are those that take the time to listen. They are those who can re-arrange their schedule and put grocery shopping plans on hold when someone else needs their presence. Paradoxically, this is why people who commit to practicing empathy with quality aren’t always available. They aren’t “always here for you” – because just like you, they have lots of things to handle in their lives. So they’d rather say, Hey, I’m being overwhelmed now, and at the moment I can’t be here for you in a way that’s truly meaningful and supportive. What if we talk tonight when I put kids to sleep and get out of the house? than stay on the phone right when you called, mimicking and parroting your words but never really connecting because their mental focus is now elsewhere.

  4. The level of critical thinking. That was a surprising finding from my research, but it emerged consistently – when critical thinking is driving, empathy normally rides shotgun, and vice versa. When the journey is long enough, they sometimes swap seats, but both remain in the front row, like a long-time, loving, married couple. If a person is low on critical thinking and instead has their vision of the world driven by the narratives of determinism, providentialism, meritocracy, and fallacies of formal logic, they’re likely a poor empathetic responder. Odds are they will ascribe a false, quasi-spiritual meaning to your story and gaslight you into rationalization and denial, instead of being here for you in a helpful and meaningful way.

Another part of my research focused on the opposite of empathy – empathic failure. What do we experience when we reach out to others with an emotionally significant experience and then don’t see them connected? Here are three crucial findings.

  1. Failures of empathy result most often from the deficit of skills, not from bad intention. And, when we’re on the receiving end of an empathic failure, the latter option is our go-to story. We think that people are neglectful, selfish, greedy, or even deliberately cruel – and the better we are at empathy, the more likely we are to see another’s empathic failure that way.

  2. The reason why this distortion is so powerful is because when there’s an authentic, vulnerable bid for empathy, lack of it in response is inevitably processed as trauma – on the neurobiological, literally chemical level. That means that reptilian brain takes over, and we’re experiencing the same condition as when our survival is threatened; so critical thinking goes out of the window. This finding from functional MRI studies first confused me, but then it started to make sense based on the increasing amount of people interviews. In fact, since we humans are a social species, the need to be emotionally connected to others, and to have them connected to us, is hardcoded in our brain. The deprivation of this need is experienced just like the deprivation of food or a threat to physical safety.

  3. Empathic failure breeds shame, and shame breeds empathic failure. My previous research on shame had empirically demonstrated that shame and empathy are mutually exclusive, but it wasn’t until I got a grip on empathic failure that I understood way. On the one hand, shame is a very powerful and very self-focused emotion. When we’re chronically or acutely in shame, we cannot extend empathy towards others, because we don’t have a platform of solid self-worth to support it. On the other hand, when you reach out for empathy around an experience that involves shame, the kind of response you get defines two radically different consequences.

    If the other person has the skills and the willingness to respond with true empathy, your shame has no chance to survive. In this case, connection grows; wounds heal; and even conflict transforms into a new level of trust and cohesion. By contrast, if you don’t receive empathy – but instead get sympathy, trivialization, rationalization, or outright invalidation of your experience – your shame grows to epic proportions. It makes you unlikely to reach out again, not only to this person, but to anybody. Shame metastasizes and creates new stories in your head about who you are and why you failed. You become less empathetic towards others. Disengagement grows, and so do secrecy, judgment, and backchanneling. Trust progressively corrodes.

Teams and corporations that have empathy embedded in the culture understand its complexity, and are committed to learning it together. Depending on the cultural background, the learning curve may be steeper or smoother, but it always pays off in the end. First, people who learn this critical skill in the workplace not only start to use it with their colleagues and customers, but also bring it to their families. As a result, they fare psychologically better everywhere, and at work this translates into economically measureable output. Second, practicing real empathy normalizes vulnerability and enables the growth of trust, courage, and connection in the culture. Innovation and creativity never fail to follow. Third, high standards of empathy allow to better communicate with and understand the customers and the market, which gives the organization a huge competitive advantage, given how rarely empathy is systemically taught and practice.

Overall, just like courage, empathy as a skillset doesn’t diminish in value going the way up from individual relationships through education institutions and small businesses towards huge corporations and even national governments – because it is the quintessential mastering the social aspect of our inherent human nature.

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