Practice Empathy

Main Point – Embrace uncertainty, take risks, even risk emotional exposure. 

Emotional vulnerability is the ability or willingness to acknowledge and/ or express emotions. Particularly those emotions that are challenging like shame, sadness, anxiety, or insecurity. Vulnerability is closely tied to empathy. Without vulnerability we can’t access our own experiences that allow us to be empathetic. We also can’t share important personal moments so that others can relate to us.

Dr. Brené Brown shares that empathy is not possible without vulnerability, only sympathy is. Sympathy, or feeling sorry for someone, can drive disconnection. Sympathy is not bad. It may even cause me to feel closer to you. However, empathy fuels connection – I am you. Dr. Brown says that empathy is a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. Empathy is about being present with someone, and if you are present and engaged and take the armor off, you’ll know what a person needs. 

Human connection makes things better for people. When vulnerability is added to empathy the result is connection or community. You cannot do empathy alone. We get our empathy from other people. They expand my empathy by giving me theirs; and I acknowledge their humanity by being empathetic. Babies are brought into the human community by bringing forth their parent’s empathy and becoming socialized by it. Students spark the teachers’ empathy and are educated through it – brought into the educated community. The list goes on.

Embrace your vulnerability and celebrate your flaws; it will let you appreciate the world around you and make you more compassionate.

Masaba Gupta

  • Share with someone something personal about yourself that you would normally hold back.
  • Tell someone when they do something to upset you.

Radical Empathy

  • Think about something that you are ashamed of and that people know about. Perhaps it is something that is a matter of public record such as a lawsuit, or a divorce, a termination? Maybe it’s something else. Practice being the one to bring it up.

Main Point – Allow yourself to feel negative emotions like grief, disappointment, fear, pain and hurt. You cannot selectively numb emotion. When you numb those feelings, you also numb gratitude, happiness, and joy etc.

The human mind is not very good at thinking about, and empathizing with, millions or billions of individuals. As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy and our willingness to help reliably decreases. We care a lot about individuals. We feel a strong emotional response when we see a person in danger or a single abandoned animal. But research shows that as problems grow and more people suffer, our emotional response doesn’t scale up. This is especially true when the numbers are shared in the form of statistics. It is called “psychic numbing” and it tells us a lot about the way we respond, or don’t respond, to some of the world’s biggest problems. 

Dr. Paul Slovic explains that if we were told there were 99 people in danger, and then we learn that there’s actually 100, people stop feeling any difference about that one additional endangered person. And although the difference between zero people at risk, and one is huge, it doesn’t take much for us to feel desensitized. In a 2014 study, Slovic recorded a decrease in empathy towards children in need as soon as the number of victims increased from one to two. 

This is an adaptive response — when overwhelmed with loss, trauma, and sorrow, people will grow numb to feelings. But awareness is the first step of any change. I wish I knew an easier path to change, one that didn’t start with the excruciating process of waking up. If we are numb, it is because the alternative is horror or terror. So we must start with noticing when we are numb, and knowing that terror lies sleeping underneath. The good news is that terror or fear to not mean that we actually are unsafe. We must’nt allow fear to cause us to become calloused.


There are people behind each data point. Focus on the people behind the numbers. 


Even partial solutions can save whole lives.

Paul Slovic

  • Celebrate when large groups of people experience joy. 
  • When have you turned away when you learned of large groups of people experiencing pain or suffering? In what ways can you acknowledge the hurt?

Radical Empathy

  • Make a contribution to an effort that feels gargantuan but you don’t know how to fix it.

Main Point – You are imperfect and that is enough. This “I would never!” position is not helpful.

Here’s an exercise designed to cultivate empathy.

Close your eyes and imagine someone drastically different from yourself. Perhaps they are standing on the side of the road, dirty, ragged and tired, begging for money. Or, maybe it is somebody you recently read about who committed an unthinkable crime. Take your time and visualize them in as much detail as you can.

Notice how your body responds to the imagery.

Now, ask yourself, what would have happened to cause me to be in that position? If you’re like most, your first thought will likely be indignant

I would never! 

I can’t even!

That’s ok. Now answer the question. What happened to you that led you to such profound despair?

Go back in time and imagine yourself as this person. What was living like one, five, ten years ago? Ask yourself what were your parents like? Did they have the ability to demonstrate morality or fairness? Did they show you tenderness? Did they care about you?

Has the imaginary you been assaulted, beaten, or humiliated? Have you been hungry and how it changed you? Now, visualize the person the day they were born. Are they different from your child or the child of a friend? Probably not. They had the same vulnerability, the same innate needs, and the same intrinsic curiosity and joy as we all do.

Check-in with your body again and notice if/how your sensory experience has changed.

  • In what ways do you need to stop holding yourself to perfect as a standard?
  • How can you extend that same grace to other people?

Radical Empathy

  • Reduce your social media use. Social media contributes to frequent social comparison, which can exacerbate perfectionism. Try taking a break from technology for a half or full day and see how you feel. When you start using social media after the break, notice how you feel. Are you engaging in social comparison and feeling “not good enough” or feeling like other people aren’t good enough either? If so, consider implementing a regular break from social media a few times per week.

Main Point: Stop practicing revisionist history. There has been a point in your life where someone granted you grace even if they were unable to empathize with you. 

Sometimes it’s hard to have empathy. Empathy requires experience, and until we’ve walked in another person’s shoes, we may find it difficult or impossible to understand the emotions they are experiencing or why they do the things they do. It isn’t fair to judge others based on our own experiences but we do it all the time. This is not because we are bad people, but because we lack empathy. We can only filter things through the context of our own reality. So how are we to offer others genuine and sincere understanding all of the time?

The answer is: We can’t. And that’s okay.

If you have never lost a parent or if you have and you didn’t have a great relationship with them, you might not be as empathetic when someone else’s grieving takes longer than you expect. Often we find it easier to demonstrate empathy with children. When children are sad or afraid, we offer them grace and reassurance. Empathy comes easily because we all remember when we were sad or scared as kids. But as adults, when other adults are sad or fearful, too often we belittle, ridicule, or tease.

In adulthood, we are expected to push through grief and move forward fearlessly, with confidence. But things outside our realm of experience or comfort zone can still be fear-inducing or scary. If we cannot relate to their grief or fear or don’t understand how they feel, we should offer them grace and kindness instead of calling them irrational, silly, or say they are overreacting.

What may seem irrational to you, is perfectly rational to someone else. They aren’t necessarily irrational. It’s simply how they experience the world. Don’t punish others for not experiencing the world in the same way you do. Empathy requires experience sometimes. While grace only takes practice.

When you fail to understand, offer grace. Practicing kindness will not only make your friend feel better, but it will make you feel better too, and maybe give you some perspective if you take the time to understand their point of view.

This practice is easier if you try to recall when someone else has offered you grace.

  • Think of a time when someone gave you an opportunity or a second chance when you did not deserve it. Document the event. What details had you forgotten?
  • Describe this event to another person.

Radical Empathy

  • Look for opportunities to give other people multiple chances to grow and develop. If you struggle doing so with adults, start practicing with younger people.

Main Point: Holding a grudge can weigh you down and it’s just not worth the suffering. Developing empathy is a necessary step in forgiveness. 

The positive emotions that lead to forgiveness have been identified as empathy, sympathy, compassion, and love. Having greater empathy makes it easier to forgive than someone having little to no traits of empathy. For many people, finding empathy for those who have hurt us is difficult. Understandably so. No one wants to take the point of view of someone they resent or fear. Why would anyone want to envision the life of the wrongdoer whose values possibly are fundamentally different from our own? Sometimes people do not respond with empathy toward a person who is suffering, especially when they feel the person deserves punishment. 

When people do something that hurts you, they often react in several ways: guilt, indifference, minimization, or shame. If the wrongdoer has the ability to empathize, they will be able to imagine and feel the events that unfolded from your point of view. Even if they don’t evaluate what happened the same, they are more likely to feel bad for the impact and take corrective action. These conciliatory behaviors obliterate guilt, making self-forgiveness more likely. 

Someone who cannot think about circumstances from other vantage points has a much harder time recognizing either the need for self-forgiveness or a path forward through self-healing. Self-forgiveness is an empathetic act as well regardless of if you are the wrongdoer or the person wronged.

When have you done something that required forgiveness?

Close your eyes and imagine the hurt of the person you wronged.

If you’re sincere and take your time, you will have embodied our common humanity—empathy—if only fleetingly. You will discover that we are all responding to life with the inner and outer resources available to us. We are doing the best we can to navigate our path through a sometimes seemingly senseless existence. What a gift you possess to have the awareness to choose healing and wholeness over suffering. 

You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me.’ It’s saying, ‘You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.

Jodi Picoult

  • Try to understand the motives behind people’s actions.
  • What’s one thing that people have misunderstood about you? In what way would they better understand if you were able to explain your motivations?

Radical Empathy

Choose battles wisely – Not every transgression deserves a reaction. In other words, not every bad or hurtful action requires forgiveness. Some things are just too insignificant to worry about. For our own peace of mind, some things are better off left alone. By exercising empathy and managing our expectations, we are able to do this more efficiently. Think about what you need to simply let go. Then let it go.

Main Point: Courage is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Being willing to risk the discomfort is true vulnerability. We can measure how courageous you are based on how vulnerable you are.

People wonder how empathy and bravery are connected? Let’s consider this question in light of a scenario.

Imagine a workplace bully verbally attacking another co-worker. As an observer, there are three emotions that you may experience. 

  1. Fear or Indifference: If you do not have empathy you may find yourself on the spectrum of apathy, choosing to remain distant and ignore the situation at hand. You may be afraid of the consequences of some harm befalling you. Fear is our brain’s way of keeping us (and our species) alive. This emotion is regulated in a part of our brain called the amygdala. It is responsible for innate reactions that we have about the world around us – especially things that might harm us. An overactive amygdala can shut down or limit access to empathy. 
  2. Revenge or Mirroring: On the other end of the spectrum, you might care only about yourself and have a selfish desire to mirror the bully’s behavior. You might desire to put the bully down so you can take some form of revenge. This could be seen as an act of bullying, too. 
  3. Empathy: When you are empathetic you will feel the pain and suffering of the person but without any accompanying selfish interests. This is the empathy that every brave person must have. It takes courage to step out of one’s own shoes, to put yourself in another’s shoes, and to feel the hurt they are experiencing.

Why is it difficult for us to empathize with other people? What makes it so difficult for us to understand or share another person’s experiences, feelings or perceptions? Can you listen to someone who supports candidates so and so? Someone addicted to heroin? A military veteran? Women who have had multiple abortions? People who support the death penalty? Those who chant Black Lives Matter? Blue Lives Matter? What are the feelings you have about the associations or lack of similarities between the types of people mentioned? 

Can you sit down, with mutual respect, and discuss seemingly drastically different outlooks on life? It is possible to identify with another person without compromising your own feelings and thoughts about life. It is possible to consider someone else’s perspective without having to agree or disagree with it. It is possible to listen with imagination. The bottom line is, there is courage gained in understanding others. Which contradicts the myth that one’s ability to care for and subsequently understand others is a sign of being submissive. On the contrary, you must be a brave person to do so.

“I think we all have empathy (but) we may not have enough courage to display it.”

Maya Angelou

  • What friendship do you have that would surprise people? What impact has this friendship had on you and your beliefs?
  • If asked, do you think the person you describe would list you amongst their cadre of friendships?


  • Think about a hobby you have, make a conscious effort to invite someone unlike you to join you or, better yet, join them while they engage in one of theirs.

Main Point: Expecting someone else to demonstrate empathy before you will is not empathetic.

Quid pro quo means that you have an expectation of goods or services in exchange for your money, goods, or services. It is not an empathetic gesture. When you give of yourself and expect something in return, it’s a transaction. You have one eye on your actions and the other on what you’ll get in return. That not only takes you away from the moment, but you can’t do your best or be your best when you have a hidden agenda.

Picking and choosing who to be empathetic towards is not empathy. Empathy is a more global element of a person’s character which allows one in any and all situations to see things from another’s point of view. Selective empathy is an oxymoron.

When we view our relationships and interactions as investments, we will seek returns as frequently as possible. When you give a gift, you automatically tell your mind and heart that you are full and don’t hold any ill will or bad feelings towards that person. It’s just like forgiveness — people don’t always deserve it, but we forgive because it gives us freedom and ultimately helps us let go of anger and bitterness.

Be the change you want to see – Mahatma Gandhi 

  • Document three things that you want to continue now that the 14-day assignment is over
  • Choose one thing that you will actually do on a regular basis to build your empathy muscle

Radical Empathy

  • Share with people in your networks the one thing you are committing to with the hashtag #empathyrevolution

Overcome the unthinkable

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