Empathy – What makes it so difficult to empathise with others?

Empathy – What makes it so difficult to empathise with others?

Veena Sethuraman

TedX Speaker, Head Learning & Development, InMobi


Human beings never fail to amaze me. One of my curiosities has always been around what makes people indifferent to others’ pain and trauma? The operative word here is Empathy; actually, the lack of it.

What is Empathy?

Empathy means “to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective”. While this is the most common explanation for empathy, we often miss out on an important aspect here. We forget to remove our shoes before getting in to someone else’s shoes. Hence the struggle; to see things from someone else’e point of view, when we are so rigid with our own points of view and perspectives.

Inability to empathise with pain we aren’t going through

Whether it is a celebrity couple who are getting divorced or a woman journalist who has voiced out her perspectives; A trans woman who has been acid attacked or a gay couple who have disclosed their love in social media.

It could be a rape victim who has decided to have the courage to voice out or a man who has been in an abusing relationship talking about his trauma.

A successful person may be talking about their mental health issues or a new mom may be sharing her depression journey.

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While we see a lot of people voicing their support in such cases, we also see an equal or more number of people character shaming these people without knowing anything about them personally.

Hence, the question –

Do we need to go through a certain problem ourselves, to understand the pain of the people actually going through it?

Is it not possible for us to empathise with people irrespective of whether we have gone through that pain or not?

It is possible to empathise, even if we can’t support 

I believe this is possible. I don’t need to be a gay to understand the issues  that LGBTIQ community is going through. I don’t need to be a parent to understand the issues of parents of the people in this community.

While with awareness I make an informed choice to support the community instead of parents, it is never about discounting the parents’ pain.

Hence, not supporting a certain group may be an informed choice for us. But, that need not take us to a non-compassionate space.

To empathise, we need compassion

After a few of my gay friends left my home after a short visit, my mother asked me “What makes you support them? Is it out of pity or because of your psychological learning about them?”
I found this question very interesting. This inquiry within me has helped me learn that we can empathise only if we have the compassion.

Compassion is defined as sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.I did start this journey as an ally from the space of compassion. But over time, it moved to a space of empathy.

Hence, in the absence of compassion, empathy will be missing; And we can develop our empathy towards people, only if we are curious and open to learn about their suffering.
If we are so caught up in the world we are in; and believe only that to be the real world with real problems; we may not have the ability to be compassionate towards the worlds of others with their real problems. We, then,  may never be able to wear their shoes; because, we refuse to remove our shoes believing that our own shoes are the only ones which help us see the reality as it is.

That is the illusion we are caught up with.

But the truth is that there is no universal truth/reality. It’s just your truth vs my truth! Hence, your truth is as valid as mine. So, can we be more compassionate towards both the truths? May be that will create a world of more empaths.

This article was first published at Veena Sethuraman’s blog  http://letsusunboxlife.blogspot.com/
Read more about Compassion in this earlier posted article.

Compassion and Kindness stretch us – to help others

Please do leave your comments at the bottom and do share with others if you like this article.

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Ameet Mattoo

Nicely Put. Indeed Compassion is a must for Empathy. In addition to this, in my experience, it is possible to empathise only when one is able to know how one feels themselves. If you are not in touch with your own emotions, you automatically numb the possibility to empathise with others – at best you can sympathise. As someone once told me, sympathy is a cognitive process, whereas empathy is an emotional process. It is that intuitive sense, which let us know how others are feeling and experience it along with them and comes to us only when we ourselves… Read more »

Rajeev Karkhanis
Rajeev Karkhanis

Well written Veena. Do you think people can be taught or coached to become empathetic ? Secondly how can we identify empathetic people?

Veena Sethuraman

Very good question. I have wondered this many times. And have concluded that, empathy as a mindset cannot be taught. Empathy as a skill can be taught. Empathy as a mindset can be learnt only if there is willingness from people to learn. Also, I believe all of us are born with the same ability to emapthize. For some it gets clouded and for others it gets firmed up. So, the idea is to not teach it. Idea is to help people to get in touch with their true ability in themselves. However this can happen only if there is… Read more »

Veena Sethuraman

To your second question – We can identify empathetic people from their willingness to listen, ask the right questions with an open mind and curiosity, space they give for others opinions/views, their ability to change their view as applicable, their patience in standing their ground and voicing their pov without pulling down others, their ability to respect themselves and others equally.

Rajeev Karkhanis
Rajeev Karkhanis

Thanks for your replies to both of my questions Veena. The context of the 2nd question was related to hiring people in a customer service or customer support role. Do you know of any psychometric or other tests that can be used to identify such people. One way , of course , is to ask them to share some stories about they have handled or responded in certain situations or paint a scenario and ask them for their response.

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