Try Radical Empathy

So you want to be empathic. Exactly what does that mean?

Just telling someone that you “feel his or her pain” is not necessarily empathy.

For instance,

  • As someone who was once downsized, it is not helpful for me to tell someone going through a RIF “I know what you are going through”
  • I have lived in a number of different cultures but that does qualify me to speak with full comprehension about another ethnic group
  • I have observed sexism all my life but I don’t fully understand what it means to be a female executive blistered by the sexism of her male boss.

The plain truth is that when it comes to empathy we have to confess ignorance about the inner emotional world of another. Every person is different and every story has its own spin.


We err in our understanding of empathy when we make our experience and our inner world the center for that supposed knowledge of the other.

If the true measure of empathy is whether the other person feels deeply known, then empathy driven by the ego gets it wrong every time.

The times in our lives when we really knew at a deep level that we were understood was when the listener displayed radical empathy which is,

  1. Totally other oriented.

“I want” can never be a part of empathy. And empathy fails when it is “all about me”. Any benevolence or attempt at identification on our part with another person’s pain (or joy) must be detached from the rewards like gratitude we hope to reap. As the saying goes in the Hindu writings “Do your duty without your eyes on the fruit of your actions.”

2.  Deeply emotional

Empathy is not a rational grasp of what it means to be in another’s shoes. It is an emotional response where we resonate with the other. And the more positive that feeling response that includes caring, compassion, and concern, the more likely that there will be a sense that “we are all in this together”.

I remember a very painful time in my life when I thought my life was coming apart at the seams.  A close friend walked in silence with me for hours on a beach near his home as I blabbered away about my lot in life. He listened to me with uttering a word. Now that was empathy!

If you have experienced radical empathy you will have no doubt about what happened. It will have been one of your most remarkable and memorable human experiences.

What is your story about radical empathy?


About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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