Can you Learn to be Empathic? (4th in a series)

(This post is part of a series on the five fundamental traits and capacities a leader with great strategic responsibility must have, derived in part from a remarkable document, the Army Field Manual on Leadership. Read an introduction to the series here.  The first three posts in the series address empathy.  This post answers the question can you learn to be empathic, and what to do if you can’t)

Can you improve your capacity for empathy?

To a significant degree, empathy is hardwired.  Here’s a sketch of what we know from neuroscience:  The capacity for empathy is part of our neurobiology, mediated by hormones and connected neurocircuitry.  Research shows that individuals who are low on the empathy scale do not react robustly to experiences of distress–either other peoples’ or their own. Perceived distress  does not motivate or lead to action as much as it would in a more empathic person.  Numerous researchers believe that special nerves called mirror neurons are at least in part responsible for the capacity for empathy.  Mirror neurons are an exciting discover in modern neuroscience—these cells are active when a person experiences an emotion evoked by watching another person experiencing a parallel emotion.  My  mirror neurons fire a message of “pain” when you are in pain.

Certain regions of the brain  have evolved to provide us with the capacity to experience the emotions of others. This is evolutionarily adaptive, as it promotes affiliative or pro-social behavior, which is especially important and active in times of stress.  These brain regions include the limbic system (where emotional processing resides), the insula, which integrates emotional information derived from the self or others, and the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), which functions as a kind of alarm or alerting system.  The ACC, for instance,  signals distress associated with an error and is active when tasks are full of conflict or effort.  The amygdala is a crucial part of the limbic system.  Amygdala’s tend to be less easily activated in individuals who are low in empathy. They also have less insular grey matter and their ACC’s don’t light up in situations involving conflict or unfairness. The Autonomic Nervous System, which mediates a vast array of physiological functions,  is more responsive  in empathic individuals and not so much in callous ones.

An interesting article in HBR by Margarita Mayo poses the question, why are we attracted to charismatic narcissistic leaders, who tend to be low in empathy, when research shows that humble ones deliver more effective, collaborative teams?  The key is the attraction of charisma, which tends to be even more of a magnetic pull in stressful times.  “High levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma” writes Mayo and I agree.  I’ve written about how historic times of stress and high anxiety make us hungry for a powerful father figure substitute that reassures us he can protect us in an omnipotent way.

Humble leaders may have a natural gift for empathy.  But charismatic, narcissistic leaders who may excel in generating vision, excitement, energy and motivation may need to work actively to develop the capacity for empathy or continue to be deficient despite their best efforts.

So if empathy is hardwired, and you happen to fall on the less gifted end of the empathy scale, can anything be done about it?  Increasing evidence from neuroscientists tells us that our brains remain plastic —that is, able to change, to lay down new pathways and connections—throughout our lifetimes.  So yes, there’s reason to believe you can still develop some measure of this capacity with attention and practice.

Based on my 35 years of clinical experience, I believe that to some degree empathy– or at least a facsimile– of it can be taught to motivated people to whom it doesn’t come naturally.  Being empathic doesn’t mean you are always going to make people happy, relieve their anxiety, cater to their anxieties or shower them with praise.  But it will strengthen your hand because you can understand the impact of your decisions and plan for the fall out. To the extent it can’t be learned, certain fail-safes and crutches can be employed by someone whose capacity for empathy is far from their strong suit.  But ignore the need at your peril.

Empathy as a process

Develop an Empathic Mindset

There are certain basic principles that are part of an empathic mindset.  You have to believe that other people have feelings and experiences that are different from yours.  Don’t waste your time trying to persuade them that they should see it your way.  Instead, try to figure out how they see things. Try hard to really care about the other person’s experience.

Learn to Look at Sequences

This is a technique psychoanalysts use to understand behavior.  You see negative, surprising or difficult reaction.  Step back and ask “what happened before?”.  What about that triggering event might have been difficult? The stimulus for a negative emotional reaction may be a bit hard to suss out.  It may not be the fact of the matter, but rather some nuance of implication.   Sometimes you can identify a cascade of negativity; it is worthwhile to trace it back step by step to the point of stability before it began.

Know Universal Emotional Reactions

Certain sensitivities are present in just about everyone.  With insignificant exceptions:

  • Everyone hates being exposed and humiliated
  • No one likes being overlooked or taken for granted
  • Everyone wants recognition
  • Everyone responds to recognition with greater loyalty and effort
  • Everyone wants to be “seen” as a separate, valued and unique human being.
  • Change causes anxiety (for most people)
  • Anxiety is ubiquitous;  moderate anxiety can be motivating and energizing, but very high levels of anxiety lead to overload and decreased level of functioning

Practice Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes

Once you accept the premise that other people are not like you, you have to practice the art of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see things from their perspective.  People deficient in empathy, when trying to do this, tend to first arrive at how they would feel in the other person’s shoes.  “If it were me in that situation, this is how I would feel and react”.  No.  It’s someone else in that situation, with a different temperament, background, set of needs and goals.  Work harder to imagine yourself in their shoes in their situation as they experience it.

Crutches and Fail-Safes

What if it’s just not in your DNA?  Like all inborn human traits, each of us falls somewhere on the spectrum between strongly and weakly endowed.  If you are a very high level leader, your charisma and narcissism might have propelled you to where you are, but may make it difficult if not impossible,  to develop a finely tuned empathic capacity.  The most important thing is to recognize that you have a relative deficit. Believe that this deficit will lead to errors and misfortune if you don’t compensate for it. Here are two strategies to compensate:

Develop a list of empathy based  questions to ask especially in times of crisis or change

  • Who is going to have an emotional reaction to that story or event?
  • Who got hurt?  Not just the obvious players.  Who else?
  • What peripheral groups are going to be effected?
  • What is each distinct group  going to feel?
  • What communications and actions are going to address those feelings?

If you’re not good at answering these questions, make sure you have someone at your side who is and whose input you are willing to listen to.

Find someone you trust who scores high on the capacity and give them the power to stop you when necessary

Bobby Axelrod, on the TV show Billions, uses Wendy Rhoades to keep him human.  And sometimes Wendy depends on Bobby for the same function.


The good thing about failures of empathy, including corporate ones, is that human beings have a built in capacity for repair.  Direct contact with injured parties, specific acknowledgment of the damage done and a non-defensive apology can have a remarkable healing effect.  And when done right, save money.


Related posts:

Introduction to Leadership Series–What Kind of Human Being do You Need at the Top

Empathy—Definition and Why it is Important In a Leader

The Business Costs of Lack of Empathy




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