Provision #532: Empathy As Action

Laser Provision

Too often, empathy is seen as a pleasantry to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. It is viewed as a prelude to action rather than as an action in its own right, with its own weight and merit. That is not the view taken, however, by evolutionary biologists. Their research indicates that empathy is a necessity, not a luxury, for social animals such as human beings and other primates. But what is empathy and how do we express it? Read on for the philosophy and protocol of empathy.

LifeTrek Provision


I was touched by the many readers who replied to last week’s Provision on The Empathy Factor in human well-being. It’s not enough to eat right and be physically fit. We also need to make a benevolent connection with ourselves and with others as well as with our families, communities, and universes. Empathy is the key to making that connection.

Last week’s Provision explained this to people by distinguishing between pity, sympathy, and empathy in ways that were both illuminating and helpful to many readers. Those distinctions deserve a little more explanation:

  • Pity is grieving someone’s experience, usually because of circumstantial hardships. We may pity a starving child, for example, or an outcast member of society. Such sorrow can lead to charitable actions such as giving assistance or showing mercy. Although helpful, such actions usually do not empower people; that’s because pity views and relates to people primarily as casualties.
  • Sympathy is identifying with someone’s experience, especially on an emotional level. When someone feels sad, for example, sympathy can make us feel sad as well. So too with every other emotion, both positive and negative. That’s because emotions are contagious. No words are necessary to sympathize with another. Sympathy is typically not discretionary; it wells up in ways that are sometimes helpful and sometimes not.
  • Empathy is understanding someone’s experience. It uses both emotional and cognitive information to connect with and give voice to what people are feeling, needing, and desiring. It does so with the utmost of respect and appreciation. There is no hurry or judgment in empathy. There is rather a safe, calm, no-fault zone where people can discover and develop their truth.

Notice that pity, sympathy, and empathy can all relate either to ourselves or to others. We can pity ourselves, for example, just as easily as we can pity others. Either way, it tends to promote a victim mentality that works against long-term solutions. Pity is more about giving someone a fish than about teaching them how to fish.

Empathy, however, is on the other end of the spectrum from pity. It, too, can relate to ourselves as well as to others. But instead of promoting a victim mentality, empathy promotes an empowered mentality. By understanding the feelings, needs, and desires that lie behind thoughts, words, and actions, we are better able to discern and to do the things that will make life more wonderful. We are better able to go catch a fish.

Unfortunately, it is at times harder to understand our own feelings, needs, and desires than to understand the feelings, needs, and desires of others. That’s because many people hear loud, internal voices that get in the way of empathic understanding. Rick Carson wrote of these voices as “gremlins,” the ones that have nothing good to say about who we are or what we do, in his now classic book, Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way.

Although Rick did not have or use this language, empathy is the antidote to gremlins. The more we try to argue with or talk down our gremlins, the harder they push back and the louder they become. The more we try to accept and empathize with our gremlins, seeking to understand their feelings, needs, and desires, the more we can learn from them and the more they become our allies in life and work.

That’s the beauty of empathy. It is powerful, in and of itself. It is not just a prelude to action; it is an action worth taking for its own sake and value. Empathy does not require a “so that.” In fact, having a particular outcome in mind usually works against our ability to offer empathy to ourselves or to others. It can come across as fake or manipulative.

Empathy is possible only when we let go of any agenda other than to fully and respectfully understand the feelings, needs, and desires that lie behind thoughts, words, and actions. To do that, we have to set aside whatever interpretations and stories we may have ascribed to thoughts, words, and actions. Marshall Rosenberg, in his excellent work on empathy in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), notes that the following interpretations and stories always interfere with empathy:

  • Enemy Images and Labels
  • Moralistic Judgments
  • Making Demands
  • Denying Responsibility
  • Talking At & Over
  • Rewards & Punishments
  • Making Comparisons

He cites Holley Humphrey as noting that the following actions also interfere with empathy, whether they are intended to be constructive or not. That’s because they come more from pity and sympathy, than from empathy.

  • Advising: “I think you should…” “How come you didn’t…?”
  • Educating: “This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just…”
  • Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”
  • One-Upping: “That’s nothing; wait till you hear what happened to me.”
  • Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time…”
  • Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”
  • Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
  • Commiserating: “Oh, you poor thing.”
  • Explaining: “I would have called but…”
  • Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”

The following perspective can help us to set aside the things that work against empathy: whatever is happening right now is the only thing that could be happening right now. It makes perfect sense in light of the underlying feelings, needs, and desires. The more curious we become, therefore, as to those underlying feelings, needs, and desires, while suspending our judgments, interpretations, assumptions, evaluations, and agendas, the more chance we have of making a life-giving connection.

We also have a better chance if we expand our vocabulary of feelings and needs. When I was a child, I had a two-word vocabulary for feelings: “I feel good.” “I feel bad.” As I got older, my vocabulary expanded to four words, and they all rhymed: “I feel mad, sad, bad, or glad.” Through NVC I have been introduced to a rich vocabulary of feeling words that is challenging me to become much more articulate about my feelings.

When needs are being met, I may, for example, feel:

  • Awed, Amazed, Astonished, Enchanted, Inspired, or Wonderful
  • Calm, Peaceful, Composed, Relaxed, Quiet, or Tranquil
  • Excited, Energetic, Buoyant, Creative, Eager, or Vital
  • Happy, Content, Pleased, Cheerful, Delighted, or Playful
  • Interested, Absorbed, Curious, Intrigued, Fascinated, or Stimulated
  • Jubilant, Ecstatic, Elated, Exhilarated, Joyous, or Thrilled
  • Thankful, Appreciative, Expansive, Grateful, Moved, or Touched

When needs are not being met, I may feel:

  • Afraid, Anxious, Dread, Jittery, Nervous, or Worried
  • Angry, Enraged, Furious, Indignant, Outraged, or Vengeful
  • Confused, Conflicted, Dizzy, Doubtful, Torn, or Uncertain
  • Disappointed, Discouraged, Dismayed, Dissatisfied, Troubled, or Upset
  • Disengaged, Aloof, Apathetic, Cold, Reluctant, or Withdrawn
  • Embarrassed, Ashamed, Deflated, Insecure, Shy, or Sorry
  • Sad, Anguish, Depressed, Despondent, Heartbroken, or Sorrow
  • Tired, Bored, Fatigued, Heavy, Lethargic, or Weary

Those lists are representative and not exhaustive. Indeed, there is no way to exhaust the range of human feeling and emotion. It helps, however, to have a more robust vocabulary than two or four words.

As the statements imply, what’s happening to needs gives rise to those feelings. When needs are being met, I feel good. When needs are not being met, I feel bad. So what are those needs? They are the same for every human being. They include such things as:

  • Autonomy (Choice, Freedom, Independence, Space, and Spontaneity)
  • Connection (Acceptance, Affection, Appreciation, Belonging, Closeness, Communication, Community, Companionship, Compassion, Consideration, Consistency, Cooperation, Empathy, Inclusion, Intimacy, Love, Mutuality, Nurturing, Respect / Self-Respect, Safety, Security, Stability, Support, To know and be known, To see and be seen, To understand and be understood, Trust, and Warmth)
  • Honesty (Authenticity, Integrity, and Presence)
  • Meaning (Awareness, Celebration of Life, Challenge, Clarity, Competence, Consciousness, Contribution, Creativity, Discovery, Effectiveness, Efficacy, Growth, Hope, Knowledge, Learning, Mattering, Mourning, Participation, Purpose, Self-expression, Stimulation, Understanding, and Work)
  • Peace (Beauty, Communion, Ease, Equality, Harmony, Inspiration, and Order)
  • Physical Well-Being (Air, Food, Movement / Exercise, Rest, Sleep, Safety, Hygiene, Sexual expression, Shelter, Touch, and Water)
  • Play (Humor, Joy, Leisure, and Relaxation)

The more I can assist myself and others to connect the dots between feelings and needs, the more I can understand the actions and desires of people. I may not agree with the strategies, I may even find those strategies to be repulsive, but at least I can respect and appreciate the underlying motives and objectives: to meet universal human needs. That’s as true for ourselves as it is for others; for our friends as for our enemies. Everyone is thinking, talking, and acting in ways that they think will meet their needs.

So why do so many thoughts, words, and actions make matters worse rather than better? Because we are not connected to the underlying feelings and needs. That’s why empathy is, in and of itself, an action and why it is often the most important action we can ever take. By getting clear about feelings and needs, we gain new perspective on the strategies to take. Empathy creates a possibility zone that didn’t exist before; it lessens resistance and opens the door to change.

Take your time, then, when it comes the work of empathy. Do not rush through the discovery process. Test the waters to explore the full range of feelings and needs that may be swirling beneath the surface. Remember: empathy is not a prelude to action; it is not something to rush through in order to get on to the real business at hand. Doing that will only make us less successful with the business at hand.

Instead, think of empathy as the work that makes all other works possible. Whether it be with your family or in the office, in your own head or in your conversations with others, take whatever time is required and use whatever resources are available to connect with those feelings and needs. Therein lies the keys to life.

One resource that I was introduced to this summer is called The No-Fault Game by Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson. It is a board game that assists people to calm down and to find just the right words to express their choices, feelings, and needs. It can be used with both children and adults either for self-empathy or to facilitate empathy in communication. I recommend it highly for those who want to build their empathy muscles.

Coaching Inquiries: How strong are your empathy muscles? Do you think of empathy as a luxury or as a necessity? How could empathy become more part and parcel of your life and work? Who could you practice with? What’s keeping you from starting with yourself?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..


Thank you so much for the very thought-provoking Provision on The Empathy Factor. I have never seen the differences between sympathy and empathy expressed so clearly, and it has given me a good deal to ponder as I strive to improve my own “empathic intelligence”. Thank you for this and many other Provisions that have helped lighten my days and enlighten my life overall.


What a great Provision on empathy. Thanks!


I think you would enjoy a brand new book by Jim Loehr, The Power of Story: Rewrite Your Destiny in Business and in Life. Do you mind if I send it to you? (Ed. Note: Who, me? Turn down a free book? I don’t think so! Thanks.)



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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