Why developing empathy is hard, but worthwhile

Why developing empathy is hard, but worthwhile

Have you ever felt wronged by someone? Maybe a colleague has dismissed a good idea you had. Maybe a friend has recently become hard to track down or seems disinterested in the goings-on of your life. It’s easy to become frustrated, righteous anger flaring as your mind races; after all it’s the quickest and easiest of all emotions, and most people’s default response. It needn’t be though, if only we had more practice exercising our empathy - and let me be quite clear, it does take practice.

Consider a different perspective

In my own life, when I bang heads with another person, I first try to see things from a different perspective. When we actively stretch ourselves to consider things from different sides we train the circuits in our brain that deal with empathy, and consistent reinforcement of these pathways can make us more empathetic people.

“Empathy is a cognitive attribute, not a personality trait” (Dr. Mohammadreza Hojat)

Maybe your idea was dismissed seemingly harshly because your colleague has just had a big project set back, or maybe a family member is sick and they’re barely keeping it together between hospital appointments. We all have problems in our lives, and the point is not to limitlessly excuse bad behaviour, but to acknowledge that we are all thinking and feeling creatures. Things that happen in one area of our lives affect the others, whether we’d like to admit it or not.

Empathy mapping can be used to put yourself in others shoes.

Empathy mapping can be used to put yourself in others shoes.

Don’t change them, change your approach.

Quite often when faced with a disagreeable person that we feel isn’t listening to us, it’s easy to write them off as being unreasonable or stupid or get angry. However, it could be that we’re just talking to someone in the wrong way. Different people have different communication styles and respond to different approaches, so next time you come up against a situation like this think about how that person communicates and whether you could be doing anything differently.

A practical way to try and accomplish this in a professional setting is by considering your communication style and that of your interlocutor. Anyone that’s ever completed a DISC personality profile will be familiar with the concept of preferred communication styles and their usefulness.

Some people are unresponsive to emotional pleas and need to be presented with well researched facts to change their minds, and other people are the exact opposite. If the person you’re trying to convince has the markers of a dominant personality type they probably won’t want to hear your long winded and multi-faceted explanation, they’ll want the plain facts with key points so they can quickly assess, make a decision and act. If you’re dealing with a people person you may need to establish some common ground between the two of you before you try to get them on board with a new idea. If the other person is analytical and methodical, make sure you come to party with your facts checked and all your ducks in a row if you want to get anywhere with them.

Sometimes considering a different perspective will help you understand why someone’s acting the way they are, and this is enough to change our approach or to simply shake our heads and move on. Other times, if you’re like me, you’ll fume silently at your desk or on the walk home about how so-and-so could be so wrong about everything ever. This takes an enormous amount of mental energy and very rarely leads to anything useful. I’m not suggesting we stop arguing and making our case to people on the things that really matter, and that we are passionate about, but if you go around trying to make every person you meet try and see things your way you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Being vulnerable to cultivate empathy

“We can’t begin being empathetic when another person arrives. We have to already have made a space in our lives where empathy can thrive. And that means being open—truly open—to feeling emotions we may not want to feel. It means allowing another’s experiences to gut us. It means ceding control. Empathy begins with vulnerability. And being vulnerable, especially in our work, is fucking terrifying.”  - Sara Wachter-Boettcher at The Pastry Box Project  

Charlottes Web original Illustrations

Charlottes Web original Illustrations

Being truly empathetic starts with allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, to expose ourselves a little. If we want to understand the way another is feeling then we need to actively engage with our own feelings, even the negative ones. When we’re vulnerable we’re genuine, and others can see this and are then more likely to open, honest and genuine with you. It’s also an essential part of self-reflection, and hopefully self-improvement.

Introspection is the observation and then examination of the way you think, which is both a formal psychotherapy method and an informal reflection process - the kind I’m referring to. It’s about taking an honest look at our personalities, pre-dispositions, motivations, fears and desires to achieve a deeper understanding of who we are and why we do what we do. Beginning with looking inwards creates a solid foundation for understanding others, because when we take the measure of ourselves we often discover motivations we didn’t consciously acknowledge that we had, and from there we can start to apply that same awareness to the feelings and motivations of others.

Meditation is a simple and useful method of enhancing our awareness of self, in fact a 2012 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that experienced meditators were significantly better at introspective practices than non-meditators. Meditation doesn’t have to involve hours spent in solitude atop a misty mountain in Nepal, effective mediation can be achieved in a little under 10 minutes. One quick and useful method is the ‘body scan’ – which the researchers used in the study – which involves directing your attention to different parts of your body. Spending a few minutes in the morning or evening meditating requires very little effort is a wonderful way to calm your mind and improve your self-awareness, even if it does reveal some uncomfortable truths.

Image:  Surface  via flickr

Image: Surface via flickr

These uncomfortable truths are useful. If we ignore or avoid the pain, joy, anxiety, elation and sorrow in our lives how can we expect to be able to relate to another human being on an important level who may be feeling the same? Practicing meditation can be difficult due to the confrontation of those thoughts and feelings. It requires us to apply empathy and understanding towards ourselves.

You need to have some empathy for yourself before you can begin exercising it towards others – without it our empathy is merely conceit.  


Exercising empathy in my own life is an ongoing daily challenge, but a worthwhile and rewarding one. While empathy is helpful for managing others through the course of our lives, it’s effect on our relationship with ourselves is even more pronounced. Being open and honest with yourself gives others the permission to do the same, and from there the only natural next step is to be conscious of how others are feeling. Carl Sagan wrote about the collective responsibility to deal more kindly with one another. I think he was right about a lot of things, this is no exception.

Once we’re conscious of others, truly conscious, perhaps then we can help others through the peaks and valleys of their lives lives as they in turn help us.

Shauna Sieger on designing what anxiety feels like and fostering creativity in a connected world.

Shauna Sieger on designing what anxiety feels like and fostering creativity in a connected world.

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