Do we have an empathy problem? The challenge of defining human connection with one ever changing word.

Tom Spencer
8 min readMar 3, 2023

For the last 10+ years, I have been an empathy advocate. I have trained people in empathy and developed my own learning programmes for managers that included sections on empathy. I even tried (not hugely successfully!) to make empathy a core skill that would be developed across an entire local authority — regardless of the role you held.

Now I think we might need to abandon the term. The more I’ve engaged with people on the idea and practice of empathy, the more I realise we are talking past each other. What empathy means, how to ‘do’ empathy and even who can be empathic when has so much variation. Is this varied understanding of empathy actually doing more harm than good?

I am anchored to my first understanding of empathy

A quick note on anchoring. Anchoring is a cognitive bias that describes a tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we receive about a subject (the ‘anchor’) when making judgements and decisions.

My ‘anchor’ for empathy came when I worked for the charity HENRY in 2012. We supported Health Visitors and Family Support to move away from an advice-giving model to a partnership model built on trust and shared understanding.

There was a section of the training that thought about the difference between Sympathy and Empathy. The example we sometimes used to explain the difference was this:

You speak to a friend who has recently been in a car accident, where someone had driven into the back of them. Sympathy was saying: “I had that happen to me once, I was so angry!” It is thinking about how we felt (or might feel) in that situation and using that to build a connection with the person.

What sympathy fails to get to grips with is that we can all have different emotional responses to the same situation. That person might actually have been scared rather than angry. It centres our feelings, rather than the person we are helping. The empathic response is to ‘tune in’ to that person and try to understand how they are feeling about it, so you can meet them there. Some people use the term “standing in their shoes.”

So the key takeaway for me was to try to tune in to how another person was feeling. That helps the person to feel understood and helps to build trust. We would support practitioners to tune in by listening, asking questions and naming the feeling — something like: “it’s looks like this has really made you angry, is that right?”

Here comes Brene Brown to upset my anchor!

When I took the role of L&D lead in Camden, a key area I wanted us to focus on was how we supported everyone in the organisation to develop key relational skills. Listening. Asking questions. Reflection. Empathy.

Camden had a brilliant training programme for a lot of staff, especially in Children’s services. The ideas was that we needed to learn from these approaches and think about how all staff could develop key relational skills — whether you had role working directly with families or if you worked in finance or IT, Planning or Parking.

During my research, I rewatched this RSA short from Brené Brown. It disturbed my empathy anchor and realised that maybe what I meant by empathy wasn’t what other people meant by empathy.

It’s been viewed nearly 20m times. So you might have seen it! I don’t think the video contains a bad definition of empathy but it is a terrible definition of sympathy. The deer in this video isn’t being sympathetic. They’re just being really annoying and not at all sympathetic.

Going down the empathy rabbit hole

Did you know that the word empathy has only been used in the English language for around 100 years? There is a clever thing you can do on Google that shows you the use of a word over time: Empathy in Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Use of the term empathy using Google

So 100 years ago, nobody was empathic, nobody described themselves as an empath, and politicians couldn’t lack empathy. I guess they did, they just didn’t call it empathy. I find it really interesting that such a new word is trying to describe such a fundamental human activity and is continuing to change over time.

There is a great article here about the history of the word Empathy, by Susan Lanzoni. Sadly it is now behind a firewall, so I’ll give you the briefest of summaries.

The word empathy derives from the German word Einfühlung, which means “feeling-in.” That sounds about right, except it isn’t. The original use of the work was actually about people tuning into objects and not people.

“To have empathy, in the early 1900s, was to enliven an object, or to project one’s own imagined feelings onto the world. Some of the earliest psychology experiments on empathy focused on “kinaesthetic empathy,” a bodily feeling or movement that produced a sense of merging with an object.” — Susan Lanzoni

There is a story of someone empathising with a grape and it made them feel “cool and juicy, all over.”

It wasn’t until 1948 that psychologist Rosalind Dymond Cartwright moved away from this imaginative projection to the connection between two people. Empathy has since been redefined numours times and even picked up by neuroscience, creating much-debate about mirror neurons.

I’ll come back to the two people connecting version of empathy in a moment but a quick detour.

There is some really interesting work happening around the power of imagination at the moment and (maybe?) a return to a form of imaginative projection that lead to the emergence of the work empathy. The work Moral Imaginations (who started working in Camden just after I left), is a great example of this. They support people shift their perspective and “look through the eyes” our ancestors, future unborn generations and the more-than-human world to give us a deeper understanding of the world. Is this a form of modern empathy that is actually the oldest form of empathy?

What is empathy

I maybe should have started here. Sorry. Some people describe three types of empathy, which I actually think are two types plus compassion.

Cognitive empathy — understanding how a person feels and what they might be thinking. This is the one I learnt first. You don’t have to feel it but you’re tuned in.

Emotional empathy — sharing the feelings of another person. This is more on the ‘empath’ path and closer to the Brené Brown definition.

Compassionate empathy — this is about not just tuning in but being moved to take action but that feeling. So not just watching something on the news and feeling sad about it but actually going and taking action off the back of that emotion.

While we’re here we may as well look at some definitions. The Cambridge dictionary can go first:

Empathy: the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation

Sympathy: (an expression of) understanding and care for someone else’s suffering

So this definition is a combination of imagining and connection and might be sympathy and I’d say that definition of sympathy is how some people describe empathy!

A US dictionary definition is more thorough/complicated. From Marrian Webster:

Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

So this is way different from the UK version and closer to the moral imagination type version.

So it is messy. We’re taking about different things — which means how we want other people to be empathic towards us or towards other people can get confused and lead to friction.

Empathy (or lack of) as a weapon

The issue for me is that empathy (or lack of) has become a stick to beat people with and I think it is misplaced, in part because people want it to be different things. That someone is or isn’t an empathic person. That people think they are doing empathy but they’re not.

There are studies that suggest that wealth gaps prevent us being empathic. We read this and see the policy decisions being made by put politicians say can’t empathise with because they’re rich and out of touch. We say “you can’t be empathic because of your background, where you went to school, etc.” But I think that is wrong.

It’s the same argument used against the metropolitan elite (me!) when people were busy voting for Brexit. There was a lack of empathy for what it was like to live in other areas of the country. Does that mean I can never understand people who live outside of London because I’m part of the elite?

Surely you can still connect with people from different backgrounds and with different life experiences. Otherwise, we can only truly connect with people like us. We all have different lived experiences, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try and understand what life is like for other people and be driven to act. But too often we write people off based on their background or something they have done in the past. This frames the ability to be empathic as something binary when it is actually messy and fluid.

This is why I am still (just about!) an advocate for cognitive empathy. I can’t really ‘feel’ what a person crossing the channel in a small boat is actually feeling. I can imagine and think how I’d feel but that might be wrong (and might be sympathy rather than empathy. Where I think they might be terrified, as I would be, they might actually be excited to be making what they hope is the final part of their journey.

In-person contact with people makes the connection much more possible. Listening and asking questions can help build connections. You can also just feel how someone else is feeling when you meet them. I remember meeting a member of my team after years of 1-to-1s online. When I asked them if they were ok that I realised that they weren’t. Does that mean empathy is something best done in person?

Goodbye empathy, my old friend.

I wonder if empathy is actually a word that will stay or if in time it will be replaced with words that better describe the sense of connection that empathy has tried to pin down.

Having been an advocate for so long, I’m think I’m going to stop using empathy. I think we have other words that are better, including connection and compassion.

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Tom Spencer

Helping public sector and community organisations deliver great outcomes for the people they serve