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Empathy, compassion, and changing the world

I have a keynote, “A Conversation About Silence”, about the silences we hide within. It is about the power of empathy to bring us out of hiding.

I believe in empathy.


I believe empathy can change our world.

Yet I do you a disservice by leaving you with just that.

Because I know, and likely you know: it’s not that simple.

Empathy by itself isn’t the key.

It’s what we do with empathy that matters.

Empathy is Information

Empathy can make us cruel as well as kind. Empathy can move us to run from others’ pain, just as it can move us to help.

Empathy, in my view, can fuel both compassion and cruelty.

Empathy provides us with information, but our choices about our behaviour determine how empathy affects others.

Two Kinds of Empathy: Affective vs Cognitive

Think about the time someone told you about a painful accident.

Perhaps they were just describing a paper cut. Or a splinter. Maybe they told you about the time they decided to sand down surface of a rough wooden board.

“I was just doing a last pass. I was in a hurry. I leaned into it.”

“The sandpaper ripped. And this huge splinter went right under my nail.”

Maybe you winced, thinking of that.

Or maybe you didn’t.

Affective Empathy

When we wince in response to others’ stories of painful accidents, when we laugh in response to others’ laughter, when we cry in response to a tragic story — we are experiencing a specific kind of empathy that I’ll call affective empathy.

Other writers (e.g., Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence) may also use the term “emotional empathy”. It’s a felt empathy — not always understood at an intellectual level — but manifested in actual physiological reactions; echoes in our nervous systems. Our reactions can be detected as brain activity, and even whole body reactions.

Humans vary in the degree to which we empathize in this way, but it’s common enough amongst humans that this kind of empathy determines a lot of our social behaviour.

Does Affective Empathy Make Us Kind?

It doesn’t always make me kind.

The word “empathy” often has positive associations. Many of us see high empathy as akin to saintliness — a quality that makes us kinder and more connected to other human beings.

It can function that way. Affective empathy does connect us. It can be a conduit that helps us understand each other.

Yet think about what it can mean to be highly sensitive to other people’s emotions.

Parents can feel this acutely with respect to their children. Their joy and love can be infectious.

But so, too, is their child’s pain. Their anger. Their fear. Their shame.

If you were inundated with such feelings from anyone and everyone, all the time, with no way to shut them off, what might you want to do?

Empathy isn’t always comfortable, especially in the face of strong emotion.

Beatitude it is not.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is experienced more intellectually. It’s not “empathy” the way most of us think of empathy. Most of us think of affective empathy as “real empathy”, whereas cognitive empathy tends to be thought of as a combination of people-reading and communications skills.

I have a friend who isn’t happy with the distinction I make. He argues that it dilutes the meaning of the word “empathy”, and perhaps he is right. But cognitive empathy — or whatever we choose to call it — is a way of relating to people. It is a way of accessing the emotional lives of others, and it can form the basis for kindness and compassion.

A person with high cognitive empathy may:

  • be good at recognizing and identifying emotional states of others based on observable indicators such as tone of voice, posture, micro expressions, and choice of language
  • have a vocabulary for communicating about emotional states and reasoning about human behavior
  • be good at perspective-taking, that is, imagining the experience of the other person based on the information they have about the person’s background, experience, and emotional state.

Cognitive empathy also involves skill sets are clearly teachable. Cognitive empathy can develop over time, with experience, practice, and observation.

It can be also taught to children, as is done as part of the Roots of Empathy program. People who take lessons in body language develop their skills in cognitive empathy. So are people who take courses in emotional intelligence. And if you read a lot of fiction with complex characters, or are always looking to understand why people behave the way they do, then you may well be working on your cognitive empathy, particularly within the realm of perspective-taking.

Does Cognitive Empathy Make Us Kind?

If it makes us more alert to each other, and we act with compassion rather than cruelty, yes.

If it helps us to consider alternative explanations for behaviour, and keeps us from rushing to condemn and judge and reject without seeing the whole person, yes.

If it helps us be more thoughtful about how we communicate with each other, and helps us modulate our behaviour to reduce harm to others, yes.

Yet most of us probably know of some situations where we — or someone else — has used cognitive empathy skills to provoke, manipulate, or even hurt. We speak of conversations where we “push each others buttons”, “twist the knife”, or “hit them where it hurts”. Maybe we’ve done it to siblings, or to friends. Maybe we’ve done it out of anger, or boredom. Maybe we’ve had it done to us.

The reasons don’t have to be nefarious. Working on our abilities to persuade, cajole, and influence is part of what we do as human beings. Childhood, in a sense, is a series of lessons in applied empathy. So is theatre. So is public speaking.

Cognitive empathy doesn’t necessarily make us more kind, but it can give us the information to recognize when kindness is needed.

We All Have Different Things to Learn

We are all different.

We vary in our sensitivity and alertness to other people’s emotions. We vary in our capacities for affective empathy, and in our willingness, ability, and opportunities to develop our cognitive empathy.

You can have high affective empathy yet low cognitive empathy. In fact, many of us probably start out this way.

Babies and children, for instance, may be very responsive the emotions of people in a room, but they might be unaware that they are responding to others’ feelings. They become upset and tearful and even act out when adults are upset, even if the adults aren’t directing anger or harm towards them.

As we grow up, we tend to learn some skills of cognitive empathy. We learn to identify our feelings. We learn to recognize them in others. Perhaps we even learn to talk about them.

Some may have trouble with cognitive empathy, because they have trouble recognizing social cues. If you have trouble perceiving or interpreting facial expressions and postures, for instance, you may need additional help acquiring cognitive empathy skills. For some people, body language training can be life-changing.

Still others may have relatively low affective empathy. This might be a function of dissociation from ones’ own feelings, or it might be a physical inability to be affected by others’ feelings.

People with the neurobiology of psychopaths, for instance, seem to be wired to have low affective empathy. While popular notions of psychopaths tend to dwell on criminality and a capacity for horrific cruelty, these one-dimensional characterizations do all of us a disservice. Low affective empathy doesn’t necessarily make a person cruel. It may mean, however, that the person is unlikely to be moved by appeals to affective empathy.

People who have low affective empathy can still have excellent cognitive empathy skills, and respond to others with behaviour that is helpful rather than hurtful.


Which brings us to compassion.

There are many ways to define compassion. We all think we know what we mean, but we aren’t always talking about the same thing.

I prefer to think of compassion as a way of behaving in response to empathy.

Compassion, in my current view, is a practice and a choice.

Compassion is behaviour, both internal and external. We choose to think compassionate thoughts, to focus on compassionate feelings. We choose to behave with compassion toward others.

When we are compassionate, we may still have ideas about people’s behaviour or motivations, but we hold these ideas lightly. We may have feelings — pleasant or unpleasant — about these ideas, but we let them pass through us, observed, not seized.

Compassion can be thought as a practice of mindfulness, applied to people’s minds.

Compassion is not always about overt action. Sometimes, moving to “help” is motivated by our need to alleviate the pain of our own empathic responses to a person’s condition. The result may still be good, but we need to be cautious about conflating action with helping.

Compassion Requires Choosing

Choosing to move toward kindness, even if we aren’t sure what it looks like.

Choosing to stop and listen, even if we don’t agree.

Choosing to behave as if others are worth our consideration, even if our feelings don’t want to play along.

I see it as a practice: an applied, intentional approach to empathy and what it tells us, with an intention biased toward kindness.

I believe in empathy.

It can change our world. It can change the way we see others. It can help us open our hearts. It can help us make space in our lives, our countries, and our cultures for other people: other ways of being, thinking, and feeling.

It can help us be thoughtful about what we value, and why we value it.

It can make us bigger, more inclusive, more courageous than we ever thought we could be.

But empathy won’t change the world by itself.

It needs us.

It needs us to choose.

Kindness. Compassion. Inclusion. Love.

Every moment, every day, every time: we get to choose how we respond to what our empathy tells us.

What do YOU choose?