I was facilitating a session about institutional racism to a group of philanthropists and donors. Many of the participants were among the wealthiest people in the world.
Participant: I understand what you just said intellectually. I was hoping you would help me get it emotionally.
Me, thinking: What did he just say?
In case you missed it, that wasn’t empathetic. He was telling me he didn’t understand, and my immediate reaction was judgment rather than helpfulness. But what kind of courage does it take to say in front of a group of your peers that you don’t resonate with anti-racism emotionally and you need help? Possibly a lot. And doesn’t it benefit us all for him to be honest and receive additional assistance in understanding rather than pretend he gets it or worse, simply not care that he doesn’t get it? I needed to get over myself and start helping—regardless of my perceptions of his privilege.
We all have misconceptions about who deserves our empathy—whether we realize it or not.
Scientifically, because of the way our brains are wired, we are more likely to offer empathy to people who look, act, and have suffered like us.
Today, there are numerous articles and podcasts that encourage us to expand our empathy beyond our immediate circles. This effort aims to recognize the shared humanity in all people, regardless of their circumstances or backgrounds. Typically, the focus is on those deemed less fortunate than ourselves. I want to challenge this notion and propose that empathy should extend to those who are more fortunate as well.
Most of us don’t naturally think of empathy when we think of people who are privileged. Why do they need you to feel sorry for them? This question highlights the common misperception that empathy and sympathy are interchangeable.
Allow me to clarify.
Empathy is having the capacity to understand the feelings, thoughts, and circumstances of another person—a sense of walking in their shoes. While there are valid reasons to sympathize or feel sorry for people, sympathy is simply an expression of our own feelings of pity or concern for another’s misfortune. To sympathize with someone, they must seem in need.
Understanding this distinction helps us recognize that empathy for people with great wealth or privilege is not about feeling sorry for them. It’s about understanding their unique experiences and emotions.
My journey towards understanding and practicing empathy has involved challenging my own misconceptions and actively seeking to empathize with everyone I interact with. One way I do this is by initiating genuine emotional check-ins at the start of my conversations, such as asking, “What’s your one word for the day that highlights how you feel?”
By asking this question and genuinely caring about the answer, I have learned about bouts with cancer, grandchildren with illnesses, great heartbreak, and countless other personal issues that people needed to express to me. This insight, no matter what we were working on together, is always helpful to me. Sometimes I learn that what might take up space in a person’s mind may be more important than anything I want to discuss. That understanding enables me to shift how I engage. Often, I just hold the space for them to share. Having an opportunity to express themselves is like a huge weight being lifted that allows us to then get on with our work together—or not.
Wealth and privilege can’t protect a person from certain types of situations. I had no idea what this participant was dealing with. Why? Because I did not do a check-in. Honestly, I felt like a bunch of billionaires didn’t need it. Empathetic listening could have been just the catalyst needed to break open the conversation that day.
Shared understanding between two people moves us beyond a transactional relationship and connects us as human beings.
Now that you know empathy for people with great wealth is not about feeling sorry for them, are you willing to consider shattering some of your own misconceptions about who is deserving of empathy?
Is there someone in your life who you have been withholding empathy from because you believe they don’t deserve or need it? I encourage you to rethink that belief and intentionally look for a way to engage with empathy the next time you meet.
Build more empathy muscle: Become an empathy engineer.