Provision #647: The Empathy Rule

Laser Provision

With a nod to President Obama’s acceptance speech this past week of the Nobel Peace Prize, this Provision lifts up the Golden Rule as the first and perhaps the most important guideline for living. The Golden Rule has been said in many different ways (I reprint and discuss six of them in this Provision) but it is a nearly universal standard of conduct when it comes to all the world religions and cultures. It is our connection with others that makes life possible, which is why I like to call the Golden Rule the Empathy Rule. I encourage you to adopt it for yourself.

LifeTrek Provision


So what do you think? Is US President Barack Obama, or a member of his staff, one of my Twitter followers? No sooner had I put out my tweet about today’s Provision on the Golden Rule, asking for input, than President Obama came along and cited that rule in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. Something tells me he came up with that on his own. 🙂 Here are a few of his comments:

As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are, to understand that we all basically want the same things, that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.

And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities • their race, their tribe and, perhaps most powerfully, their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we are moving backwards. We see it in the Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.

Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint • no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith • for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached • their faith in human progress • must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

For if we lose that faith • if we dismiss it as silly or naive, if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace • then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.

Like generations have before us, we must reject that future. As Dr. King said at this occasion so many years ago: “I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.” So let us reach for the world that ought to be.

The Obama Doctrine, if we can call it that, is a temperate and reasoned application of just war theory: doing what is necessary to combat evil, within the bounds of certain moral and internationally agreed upon limits, while embracing both the ambition of peace and the value of dissent. Although he didn’t say it directly, those who protest in America contribute to the common good no less than those who protest in other countries. The system of checks and balances goes far beyond the three branches of government. It includes all who would strive in good faith for justice, dignity, and peace. That is, as Obama concluded, not only the hope of the world but the work to which we have been called at this moment in history.

Although I do not fully embrace The Obama Doctrine myself (I am more concerned, apparently, than President Obama is by the implications of what he himself quoted from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., namely, that “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem. It merely creates new and more complicated ones.”), I am nevertheless thankful that we have a President who affirms and seeks to apply the Golden Rule in his dealings both personally and as a head of state. We could do and have seen far worse on that score around the globe.

If the various versions of The New Ten Commandments reprinted in last week’s Provision share anything in common it is the explicit or underlying assumption that our needs are not that different from the needs of others and that seeking to meet those needs is a good guideline for life. This rule, traditionally called the Golden Rule, is stated in many different ways by many different people, cultures, and religions. Consider the following six versions. Each adds a little something to the mix.

  1. Do unto others what you would have them do unto do. This version, which might be called the “classic version” of the Golden Rule, makes clear our sense of connection or oneness with other people, other creatures, and all of life. What’s good for us is good for them, at least up to a point (see numbers 3 and 4 below). Our survival depends upon our ability to proactively care and be cared for by others. When infants have no words, parents nevertheless figure out what they need. As adults, we still have the frame of reference. It runs so deep as to be intuitive. Knowing how we would want to be treated guides how we treat others. The web of life is intrinsically reciprocal and interconnected.
  2. Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. The same formulation, stated in the negative, adds a new wrinkle. It’s one thing to care for others; it’s another albeit related thing to do no harm. That is, you might remember, a central part of the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors swearing to ethically practice medicine: “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.” The first part of the Oath is about doing unto patients what doctors would want for themselves; the second is about not doing any damage. It is wrong to hurt people and to make life miserable for them. That’s a good guideline for living.
  3. Do unto others what they would have you do unto them. This version kicks the Golden Rule up a notch. It helps to make clear the distinction between needs and wants. Just because I like to eat local, grass-fed, free-range bison as part of my Optimal Wellness Prototype does not mean that you like to eat that meat or any meat at all. My preferences are not your preferences and the Golden Rule should not be taken to mean that my standards are your standards. Insisting on the old adage, “what’s good for the goose is goods for the gander,” comes up short if we don’t understand that the Golden Rule has to do with meeting universal needs (not particular strategies). Asking and discerning how people would like to be treated is a more life-giving way to proceed.
  4. Do not do unto others what they would not have you do unto them. So, too, when it comes to not doing what people do not want us to do with them, for them, or to them. People do not like dictatorships, not even so-called benevolent ones. Compromising a person’s autonomy gets us in trouble every time. That’s where all those mother-in-law jokes come from. Instead of doing what we think would make life more wonderful, some people insist on doing whatthey think would make life more wonderful. More often than not, that’s a formula for stress rather than happiness. Learning to abide, then, by the requests of others as to what they do not want us to do may be a challenging and difficult task • especially if we think we know what is best for them • but it is also the way to mutuality, trust, and love.
  5. Do unto others what you most admire others for doing. This version kicks the Golden Rule up two notches. Who are your teachers, mentors, and heroes? Who are the people you look up to? What have they done in their lives? How have they sacrificed and served others? What values do their lives express? What needs have they sought to meet? How have they made the world a better place? Once you get a clear fix on the answer to those questions, you are well on your way to self-coaching yourself into the highest expression of the Golden Rule. This version goes beyond what we want or what someone else wants; this version goes to the core of our contribution in the world. Being not just the best in the world, but being the best for the world. As long as we admire benevolent people, rather than those who would seek to do harm, this version may stretch us to higher aspirations.
  6. Do not do unto others what you criticize others for doing. So, too, when it comes to living with integrity and walking the talk. When was the last time that you did something that you had told someone else not to do? “Don’t bite your fingernails!” as we later proceed to bite our own. “Don’t micromanage that guy!” as we later proceed to micromanage our own direct report. “Don’t be so hard on that person!” as we later punish our teenager severely. The list of exceptions knows no bounds. We do it all the time. But the Golden Rule suggests that we learn to restrain and transform our ways. When we conform our lives and spirits to the standards we subscribe and give voice to, we not only become better persons in the process, but the world becomes a better place to be.

Note that all of these formulations do not restrict or define the other. The Golden Rule is not limited to our friends, to those we approve of, or to those who are worthy. That makes it even harder. It’s one thing to treat people right who we like or who we think are deserving. It is another thing to treat people right who we don’t like or think are not deserving. Should we extend such consideration even to criminals, terrorists, and enemies? That is exactly what the great religious traditions challenge us to do. It’s easy to treat our friends right (although we don’t always do even that); it’s a lot harder to treat our foes that way.

In the end, it should be clear by now that the Golden Rule is really the Empathy Rule. We spent a lot of time on empathy during our series on Life-Giving Needs. I invite you to read those Provisions again and to visit our companion site, www.CelebrateEmpathy.com. Empathy is the respectful understanding of another person’s experience. When we cultivate that understanding, treating people right, in ways that make life more wonderful and fulfilling, becomes a lot easier and more likely.

So the Golden Rule begins when we cultivate the consciousness of empathy. When we view hostile, untoward, and even violent acts as tragic expressions of unmet needs, we become more able to reach out with love and understanding. Instead of demonizing people, such respect humanizes people and makes it more likely that the world will eventually rise up to the full measure of its calling.

Coaching Inquiries: How do you cultivate empathy for people you don’t understand or like? How do you extend love and care to people you think of as strangers or even enemies? Who do you know who does that with effortless aplomb? How can you get to know them better? How can you learn their secret to making life more wonderful both for themselves and for others?

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 to arrange a complimentary conversation. To learn more about LifeTrek Coaching programs, Click HereTop

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 Formor Email Bob.


I’m glad you will be writing about empathy and the Golden Rule; they are such a big part of Emotional Intelligence and Spiritual Wellness. Love your Provisions.


On this 55th birthday of yours I want to express how grateful I am for your gifts. Your commitment and discipline to your writing and sharing of Provisions, your research and the synthesizing of wisdom beyond what most of us are willing or able to do for ourselves, your willingness to take risks and become vulnerable so that we all might think bigger, better, deeper and broader. Thanks doesn’t express my appreciation enough.


What a special gift you are to this planet. You light lots of candles for so many who are walking in the shadows. It is a great gift to be in your path.


A friend of mine posted this link to his Facebook page: http://bit.ly/8pFQRI Thought it fit well into your question about the Golden Rule but pushes us beyond empathy with those we deem worthy.  


Search for “Quantum Communications” on YouTube. There are 16 segments and they are all fascinating.


I was so excited to read this week about the wonderful response to your announcement of your Evocative Coach Training Program. This is very exciting and important work you’re undertaking. Bravo!


A birthday is just the first day of another 365-day journey around the sun. Enjoy the trip! It was great to see you in Orlando at the ICF Conference! Kudos to you for the work you’re doing with the IAC.


I wish you all the best on your birthday and in the years to come. Thank you for stepping forward to serve as the IAC President. You are sure to lead the organization to having even greater impact in the coaching world. 



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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