Empathy – The word no one understands

Okay, I admit that saying “no one understands it” is a bit of an exaggeration. I was hoping that you could feel a bit empathic toward my frustration about the ability for people to effectively understand it and use it on a regular basis.

Brace yourself, here comes another exaggeration – Empathy is one of the most important nouns in the English language. That was misleading. Empathy is in the top 1% of the words looked up online in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

I first became aware of the power of empathy four decades ago when I joined a management training firm and learned the “listen and respond with empathy” is a very important behavior for effective leaders. They still teach it today in their courses. Recently I read that a large benefits administration organization has and still is doing research on the power of empathy regarding employee satisfaction in the workplace. 

With all the attention empathy has received over the years you would think it would be widely understood and frequently used. Based on my four decades of experience in the leadership training and executive coaching business empathy is not understood and is infrequently used. Empathy is often confused with sympathy and even the definitions of empathy vary a great deal. 

Here is a definition I prefer –

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own.

Empathy is one of the most powerful things you can do. This is so because one of the top six human needs is to be loved and feel connected to others. Just reflect for a minute on how often you have felt, said or heard the phrases:

  1. You don’t understand me.

  2. You are not listening to me.

  3. You shouldn’t feel that way.

  4. That is a stupid idea.

  5. How could you not realize how upset I am?



The list could go on for a long time. Each time one of these phrases is uttered it is an indication that someone is not feeling loved and/or connected – empathy is not in use. What happens when the human/heartfelt connection is broken or never established – defensiveness, fear anger loss of love etc. None of these are productive. Empathy is the master key to making heart level connections with others. Become talented with use of empathy and you will experience an uncommon ability to connect with others, solve problems and move through difficult times. There is a mountain of evidence to support the importance of empathy in human interactions. Most of it is connected to the research that is done in connection with Emotional Intelligence(EQ). Dr. Martyn Newman cites the importance of empathy in his book Emotional Capitalists. He includes empathy as one of the 10 important keys to Emotional Capital. Tony Robbins in the book Awaken the Giant Within lists Six Steps to Emotional Mastery which is essentially a description of how to use empathy. I could go on but I won’t.

Koi by artist Beti Kristof

Koi by artist Beti Kristof

So if empathy is soooo important why aren’t more people doing more of it?

Number one reason is people confuse empathy with sympathy. In my experience as a coach and a facilitator in classroom leadership courses, when people actually know the definition of both words they end up expressing sympathy (agreement with not understanding of), not empathy. 

The number two and most important factor why they have difficulty operationalizing empathy is there is a lack of coherence between what the conscious mind is seeing and hearing and what the subconscious mind is processing. There is a conflict that occurs between what the conscious mind is trying to do and what the subconscious has been trained to do to ensure safety The conscious mind says to follow the steps you were taught or read about, yet the words that come out don’t match. This happens because before the conscious mind has processed the interaction the subconscious mind hijacks control. The subconscious has been trained for decades to recognize the look on the other person’s face and determine whether it is a ‘safe’ environment. The subconscious can highjack the situation because it processes more information faster than the conscious. It also has the more powerful neural network that has developed inside your brain for decades. The default always goes to the most powerful neural network.

Humans are designed so that the subconscious is in charge of our wellbeing and safety. So when the irate customer is telling you how awful your product is, your subconscious hears that as an attack on you, anger flares and at best you are able to unemotionally cite corporate policy. Substitute spouse or child or parent or fill in the blank for an angry customer and I am sure you can recall being the recipient of an angry outburst. 

Empathy requires that you don’t take the situation personally and that you respond from your heart and make a connection with the person. When that happens ideas are generated, problems are resolved and both individuals feel good about the interaction.   

That will occur when and only when you have created a strong neural network in your subconscious that allows you to feel safe when you encounter strong emotions in others. Then you have coherence between what the conscious mind is processing and how the subconscious mind has learned to react in intense personal interactions. 

Coherence between your two minds is not easy and it is learnable. 

Here are the steps to building your skill at using the power of empathy. 

  • Step 1 is that you become aware of and commit to your need to demonstrate empathy in order to live the kind of life you want. 

  • Step 2 is make a list of the types of situations in which you find it difficult to show empathy. In other words become aware of the stimulus that triggers your subconscious to issue an alert. 

  • Step 3 is pick one of the easiest triggers to make a change in. Then in the next 7 days just become aware of how often this trigger is engaged. You don’t have to do anything, just become aware. 

  • Step 4 is to mentally rehearse showing empathy in the situation you have chosen. It helps to write out the words you think you will use that generate the coherence you seek. Practice this mental rehearsal as until you can do it without having the feeling inside that this won’t work. 

  • Step 5 is trying it out in a safe situation. Practice with a friend or a colleague.


  • Step 6 is going live with using your ability to create alignment between what your conscious mind knows and your subconscious mind is directing you to do.

  • Step 7 is use the power of empathy to create a richer and fuller life for you and all of those you touch

And that is not an exaggeration!

• • • • •

Featured Artwork: ZEN POND by Beti Kristof

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