Think You Know Everything About Empathy?  Not So Fast.

How’s that for a groundbreaking idea, huh?  Another article about empathy!  I figured since this topic had never been covered, I would become a pioneer and blaze some new trails.  Yes, that was an extra scoop of sarcasm to get this thing started.  You’re welcome.

Empathy is a trendy buzzword that has been well-documented, and then some.  But, in my mind, this is one of those good problems.  You’re probably familiar with the Rule of 7.  It’s an old marketing term stating that people need to hear something a certain number of times for that message to stick, and for them to take action.  Do you want to hazard a guess on how many times?  Yup, that was a bonus scoop of sarcasm – it’s on me.  Anyway, I’d like to propose a different rule for empathy.  Let’s call it the Empathy Rule of Infinity.  I couldn’t begin to tell you how much attention empathy has been given by a wide range of different authorities and wannabe-authorities but, because you brought up marketing (or was that me?), I can assure you it needs even more advertising.  I honestly don’t think the law of diminishing returns applies here.  If something is capable of making the world a better place, is too much ever enough?  Not according to this furry fella…

A Force to Be Reckoned With

Overdramatic statement alert!  Here goes nothing:

Empathy is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. 

Those aren’t empty words or an exaggeration.  I’d put it at #3 on the list of these forces.  What list?  My own, of course.  Don’t believe that I have such a list?  I’ll prove it to you.  Here is the official Geoff’s Top 5 List of Most Powerful Forces in the Universe:

  1. Love
  2. Laughter
  3. Empathy
  4. Self-confidence
  5. Gratitude

Just to be clear, I’m fully aware that declaring any force as the most powerful in the universe is completely subjective.  And my ranking system has no real weight beyond the opinions of this amateur philosophizer.  I’m quite certain that Yoda or any superhero from the Marvel Multiverse would take exception to my list but it’s MY list, not theirs.

Anyway, the reason I feel so strongly about the gravity of empathy is because human beings are social creatures.  Like it or not, we rely on one another and the interactions that happen among us.  Higher levels of empathy lead to stronger relationships.  I don’t know how to make it any clearer, and it’s not even debatable.  In our personal worlds, for example, empathy allows for gaining an understanding of what friends and family members are experiencing in their lives.  From a professional standpoint, empathy leads to our becoming viewed by coworkers and colleagues as a collaborative, receptive resource when an important task needs to get done.  In both personal and professional scenarios, those demonstrating empathy become invaluable, and bonds can be formed that are difficult to break.

Because of its influence on so many interpersonal dynamics, I felt compelled to dedicate an entire article to empathy.  It’s an opportunity to take a deeper dive into a few concepts in which you might already be somewhat familiar.  But, as you probably anticipated, I’m going to do my darndest to push further and broaden your empathic horizons by positioning new knowledge through a few insights that you might not have been expecting.  Because, hey, that’s how I roll.  Are you ready?  Let’s go.

The Secret Sauce for Trust

There’s this fine young man that I know.  He developed a game-changing model called Disruptive Discovery.  Perhaps you’ve heard about it (or even read the book).  Or maybe you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.  Either way, that’s totally cool.  In a nutshell, the method is a process for helping people solve problems or improve in a development area they’ve identified.  Essentially, it’s a tool for people in a position to support other people who are working toward getting themselves to a better place.  Well, trust is not only the starting point of this facilitation process for betterment, but it’s also fundamental to any relationship that can be deemed “effective”.  This means the need to establish, build, and maintain trust is a foundation for the relationships that you value the most.  Its influence doesn’t dissipate, not ever.  The ebbs and flows of trust either galvanize or suffocate your efforts to produce meaningful connections with others.  Put another way, if you asked me to articulate what trust means to relationships, I would give you the eloquent response of, “Uh, everything.”

There are many different theories and approaches out there for trust building.  But I will relentlessly repeat and reinforce my core tenet that empathy is the bomb.  With that being said, let’s explore how it works within the requisites of trust.  What are requisites of trust?  What a great question.  I’m so glad you asked.  The requisites of trust are criteria that must be met when determining whether to trust someone in a particular situation.  And there are three of them:  capability, reliability, and sincerity.

To continue this train of thought, and to connect the dots with the role of empathy in determining the level of trust to grant – or not grant – someone, it would be wise to examine these three requisites, along with the questions that are being asked to satisfy each.  I’ll offer thoughts on what’s happening in the background of these assessments, as it relates to empathy:

  • Are you capable – CAN you do it?
    • People associate empathetic behaviors, such as asking questions and listening, with competence.  A stronger belief in your skill level equates to higher perceived capabilities.
  • Are you reliable – WILL you do it?
    • Demonstrated empathy gives others a feeling that “we’re in this together” because of an emphasis on their interests and not yours alone.  This togetherness vibe promotes a sense of reliability.
  • Are you sincere – WHY are you doing it?
    • When practicing empathy, people are less likely to question your intentions.  Expressing genuine interest, being present, and displaying authenticity delivers a strong message of sincerity.

Empathizing can give a boost of confidence leading to or further supporting affirmative answers with any, or all, of these trust-determining factors. My intent was to make this concept as painless to fathom as possible.  Which means it would only make sense to mix things up and follow with a concept that’s a little pricklier, and a common misconception.  At least, conceptually speaking

Don’t Confuse Sympathy with Empathy

Those words are often treated as if they have the same meaning.  As a result, they’re frequently used incorrectly.  They sound similar and have common roots in feelings.  But they have differences that exist at very basic, yet significant, levels.

Sympathy is a feeling or an emotion.  It’s a way of expressing concern for someone else.  It’s a conscious recognition that someone feels something.  The term is most often associated with unfortunate circumstances.

Empathy is an awareness of the feelings or emotions other people are experiencing.  It’s the act of trying to internalize a situation in a way that helps to understand how someone else is, well, experiencing an experience.  You’re attempting to see the world through their eyes or walk in their shoes, as those popular simplifications go.  I tried to come up with a new catchy expression of my own but figured people were fond of those explanations for a reason.  So, it made sense to save some of my precious, yet dwindling, mental energy by not reinventing a wheel that works just fine.  I didn’t want to be this guy…

The ideal endgame is that awareness matures into understanding.  If you have a similar shared experience with another person, awareness is likely already in place and understanding can occur instinctively.  For example, a personal or professional loss could be a source of commonality.  Without such a bond, arriving at understanding might be dependent on mindful effort.

It should be noted that neither sympathy nor empathy are reserved exclusively for undesirable situations.  Although, this is the context routinely used for both.  Due to the diligence and resolve involved, it’s significantly easier for most people to sympathize than empathize.  But if this an area in which you’d like to improve, fear not.  It can be done with some dedication and hard work.  And with that…

Becoming More Empathetic

Empathy can be learned.  This proclamation deserves an encore performance.

Empathy can be learned. 

We can strengthen our capabilities in this area.  Growth can be achieved in this life skill.  Enough build-up, it’s time to walk the talk.

Allow me to pass along a few suggestions I’ve encouraged others to try, in addition to some self-encouragement, that have yielded positive results.  These are very much doable exercises aimed at bulking up empathy muscles:

  • Get uncomfortable by putting yourself out there in new circles and networks
  • Practice replacing statements with questions
  • Stretch your curiosity limits
  • Explore your biases
  • Work on catching any judgmental thoughts before they take hold
  • Welcome your differences with others instead of avoiding them, especially diversity of thought
  • Form a habit of reminding yourself that appearances can be deceiving

Any and all of these acts will get you headed in the right direction.  Some are more challenging than others and will require pushing yourself to accomplish such an impactful objective.  However, there’s a basic practice missing from this list.  It’s an activity essential to developing empathy capabilities.  If you were on a deserted island and were only allowed one means to increase your empathetic capacity, the selection should be easy-peasy. 


You get the irony, or ridiculousness, of trying to become a better listener when stranded on an island by yourself, right?  Regardless of whether my lame attempt at humor hit the mark, the point is that this action needs to be put into motion more often.  You can’t overlisten.  Integrate droves of Attentive and Interactive Listening praxis into your relationships.  Make those listening practices deliberate focal points in future exchanges of all sorts.  Over time, less effort will be required as they morph into habit.  And I’m not using the term “morph” from a biological standpoint.  But, now that you mention it, there is science involved in empathy too.  That’s a conversation for another day (or another article) but, if you’re interested in going down that rabbit hole, do some research on mirror neurons.  To help get you started, I’ll even go a step further.  Try a Google search using the words “mirror neurons and empathy”.  There’s also a captivating dissertation – if I do say so myself – in my book.  To me, it’s fascinating stuff but, then again, I’m a nerd for anything that helps explain human behavior and why people do what they do.  And speaking of science…

Empathy on Steroids

That’s my clever way of describing something known as compassion.  In essence, this feeling goes beyond the empathic state of awareness in which we’ve delved.  Compassion comes alive when being aware transcends into a motive for action.  I’m going to state something that might seem like a play on words.

Motives are the origin of motivation. 

This isn’t me trying to engage in semantics or pull off a cheap Buddha impersonation.  No, what I just said is true, and motivation consequently drives our behaviors.  The motives behind them pave the way for compassion, which is nothing more than a readiness to lend a helping hand.  It represents a willing response to the needs of others.  But what help do we offer?  Here we find a hidden quandary that’s more complicated than it appears at first glance.

At the root of this problem is the Golden Rule.  This age-old guideline is a principle meant to tell us how to model our lives.  It states that we should treat others in the way we want to be treated.  On a surface level, it sounds like a noble pursuit.  How could anyone argue against living by those words as a vehicle to guarantee more empathy, and even compassion, in this world?

My inner contrarian just hit the buzzer.  I have no idea how to spell the sound a buzzer makes and I gave it way too much thought.  You’ll just need to use your imagination.  Or, for full effect, take a listen:

I believe the Golden Rule is egocentrism in disguise.  Think about what it’s literally telling us to do:  treat people the way WE want to be treated.  Why would we presume that another human being shares our same needs?  How is it acceptable that we impose our standards and way of thinking on someone else?  Sounds a little arrogant to me.

As a result, a different version of this principle has been put forth and is often touted as a better option.  The Platinum Rule states that we should treat others the way they want to be treated, and I couldn’t agree more with this premise.  Did you hear that noise?  That’s the sound of a hammer hitting a nail squarely on its head (you’ll have to find your own sound effect this time).  As much as I embrace the symbolism of platinum being a more valuable metal than gold, I’m not even sure a special name is needed for this rule because it exemplifies compassion.  They’re synonymous. Don’t confuse my accolades for compassion with suggesting it’s required in all situations.  That constitutes an unrealistic pipe dream.  More importantly, it would be inauthentic.  Compassion happens within us.  It can’t be forced or manufactured.  But it also doesn’t happen without empathy.  That’s the vital first step.  More empathy begets more compassion.  We achieve that revered understanding of the way others want to be treated by exercising awareness and listening skills, while remaining fully present in those moments.  If we could only extend the same courtesy to ourselves.  Or can we?


We’ve covered the importance of being more empathetic as we interact with others, which requires a diligent commitment to external awareness.  But there’s another type of empathy that’s worth mentioning.  And that’s the empathy we impart toward ourselves.  For that to happen, we need an internal alertness, also known as self-awareness.

This “know thyself” outlook can be characterized as a recognition and consciousness of our own feelings and emotions.  We must establish this ongoing connection with ourselves.  There’s no argument over the fact that our mental state has a major impact on the actions and behaviors in which we decide to engage.  Yes, I said “decide”, because we have the freedom and power to choose our responses when encountering any stimulus (a tip of the hat to Viktor Frankl for this empowering perspective).  A cognizant awareness puts us in a position to make better choices.

Going a step further, self-awareness gives some insights into the empathy loop.  If others are practicing empathy, they’re aware of our feelings and emotions.  By being aware of our own feelings and emotions, we’re on the same page with others.  They see what we see in ourselves, and we can acknowledge their awareness.  It’s the “I know that you know, and you know that I know” cycle.

On the flip side, self-awareness can often lead to self-judgment.  We beat ourselves up.  That could possibly be one of the reasons self-awareness is difficult for many people.  Blocking it could be a defense mechanism people unconsciously activate to prevent or avoid looking at themselves in a mirror.

If you hit me with that old standby, “What are you reading these days?”, I would call out a name before you could finish the question.  In my view, Mark Manson holds the top spot for most refreshing, astute author and thinker.  He has created status-quo-challenging content on a wide range of topics that really matter.  Specifically, he has written about self-awareness, and his take on this concept really echoed within me.  I have particularly found lasting value in a great connection he makes between the manner in which self-awareness works with self-acceptance and how we view others.  What a perfect fit for this discussion, right?  A quote from his article The Three Levels of Self-Awareness – which rocked me – was, “Empathy can only occur in proportion to our own self-acceptance.”  Wow.  I would fail epically in any feeble attempt to enhance that statement.  Sometimes, but only sometimes, I know when to keep my mouth shut.  This is one of those times.

I implore you to work on practicing self-empathy and I commit, here and now, to continue doing a better job of taking my own advice.  It will enhance your relationships with other people in addition to providing some necessary self-care.  And please don’t forget to give yourself a break.

My final, final thought on empathy is that it forges an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself.  If you buy into my premise that empathy is rare, this belief comes with the ability to stand out from the crowd in a special way.  Professional and personal contacts will view their interactions with you as unique and richer because, let’s face it, empathy rules.  It can also be an ally in your quest to climb into the rarified air of excellence in whatever you’re aspiring to accomplish. 

Be different.  Be excellent.  Empathize.

A Disruptive Call to Action

Are you smellin’ what I’m cookin’?  Meaning I’m wondering how all of this is sitting with you.  Will you do anything with the learnings or insights that have resulted from my ramblings?  The rubber meeting the road would be you putting those takeaways into action with your family, friends, coworkers, or pet python (snakes suck and are completely void of empathy, by the way). 

If you feel this has been a positive difference-making experience, there’s more to come.  Just hit this sign-up clicky thing to register for my Disruptive Thoughts newsletter, if you haven’t already done so.  Go on, it’s easy.  That’s the platform I’ll be using to launch articles in the future, not to mention a cool hangout for so much more content intended for those who possess a desire to think differently.  And I’m not trying to trick you into yet another inbox-filling weekly subscription that I know you don’t read in the first place.  That’s not my bag and I promise to only push out newsletters when I have enough deep, impactful, and disruptive thoughts to send your way.

We’re creating a community of peeps who are pumped about boarding this train.  And that’s where you come in.  No strings attached – maybe just a small thread or two – but I could really use your help with spreading the word.  To sweeten the pot, I’ll make a deal with you.  Do your part with bringing others to our happening club and I’ll keep doing my darnedest to create game-changing stuff that really matters.  Deal? 

Consider this a rallying cry and I’m encouraging everyone to forward this article to others within your circles, networks, groups, and cliques.  If you know of fellow awesome individuals who would want to be part of what we’re stirring up together, pass it on. 

You have my word that doing so will be a big step in the right direction toward getting disruptive.

Here’s a good ‘ol link that you can forward to everyone you know:

And a few other clicky things for that nice rush of dopamine you’ll undoubtedly get by sharing on social media: FB Author pageLinkedIn profile  and Instagram page

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