Can we teach empathy, especially to adults?

Can empathy be taught?

I was having this conversation with my wife last night — before I launched into “Sweat B” of P90x, naitch — about something I feel like I write about a lot (too much?) on this blog, i.e. the notion that traditional ideas about management (deliverables, paying dues, no friendship between managers and employees, poor communication is fine so long as we’re making money) are somewhat fading away in favor of these new ideas (soft skills, communication, empathy, real leadership training, transformational instead of transactional).

Generation vs. Generation

The problem is that you have one generation trying to hold on and get out with their mint, and you have another generation (the youngest one in the workforce) trying to find purpose and prove themselves. Those are often at cross-purposes. It should be noted that the Boomers and the Millennials are two huge generations, people-wise, so generalizing about them is pretty fraught. Everyone is different, as is every company, every manager-employee relationship, and every other conceivable touchpoint you encounter in a work setting.

A lot of this, to me, does come back to empathy. It’s a core way to get people to listen to you, for one thing. The hiring process and unemployment all pushes outward from a lack of empathy. I’d argue humility is pretty closely tied to empathy, and many leaders lack that. I could go on and on. I’ll spare you.

So last night, after this convo and workout, I’m reading part of the Sunday New York Times — which I almost never read — and I come across this article about how empathy is a choice. That’s pretty interesting, because … most of the time I think we think that some people do have empathy (or the capability for it) and some people do not. It’s that simple. Cut-and-dried, right? Maybe not.

Power positions and empathy

That New York Times article quotes a lot of different studies, from those arguing that we have limits to our empathy when it comes to those of different races to those arguing that if you know empathy is a skill that can be improved, you’ll actually work on improving it.

Before we get too too far into this, let’s pause and think about another study referenced: namely, people in higher power contexts (think of leadership, or even dictators) tend to have less experience with empathy simply because they have less incentive to interact with others.

This is an important point, and we should pause and reflect on it for a second: basically, those with power have almost no need for empathy. That makes a lot of sense. When you have power, people tend to serve you, not engage in an actual dialogue with you. You have a secretary, and direct reports, and a social construct that is probably based largely on people chasing your money or influence and wanting you to say or represent or give to things. (This is somewhat of a generalization, yes, and I apologize. But it’s not wholly untrue.)

As a person rises up an organization, then, you’d assume their empathy probably declines. As that happens, they probably relate less well to people back down the chain (middle managers). That frustrates middle managers — “I’m not being heard!” — and the feces continues to roll downhill to the rank-and-file. None of this is good; the rank-and-file is typically the level closest to the consumer.

Those high-up guys, without empathy? They tend to be closest to the money-making processes and the partners of the organization, but not the direct consumer.

It’s all a giant disconnect — and, if we’re being honest, what I just described is essentially why “employee engagement” ever became an issue. Notably:

  • Management advice and practice was the same for decades
  • Eventually people they weren’t getting paid more, were losing rights, and had terrible bosses
  • New ideas came into vogue
  • For these ideas to work, the higher-ups (where “buy-in” comes from) need to be empathetic to the causes at hand
  • They’re typically not, for reasons outlined above
  • Stuff rolls downhill

OK, so now pause and pivot again.


But can empathy be taught to adults?

Go back to that second linked study above. If you think empathy is a skill and it can be improved, will you actually improve it? Can empathy be taught/improved, especially in adults?

Here’s an interesting note from The Times:

Even those suffering from so-called empathy deficit disorders like psychopathy and narcissism appear to be capable of empathy when they want to feel it. Research conducted by one of us, William A. Cunningham, along with the psychologist Nathan Arbuckle, found that when dividing money between themselves and others, people with psychopathic tendencies were more charitable when they believed that the others were part of their in-group. Psychopaths and narcissists are able to feel empathy; it’s just that they don’t typically want to.

Read that last sentence.

We typically think narcissists and psychopaths can’t feel empathy, but … maybe they can and they just don’t want to. It’s a contextual behavior, then? You can turn it on and off?

If so, could we create a workplace where empathy was a normative, funneled-to behavior?

Here’s a research paper that seems to argue for “no:”

Empathy is a commonly used, but poorly understood, concept. It is often confused with related concepts such as sympathy, pity, identification, and self-transposal. The purposes of this article are to clearly distinguish empathy from related terms and to suggest that the act of empathizing cannot be taught. According to Edith Stein, a German phenomenologist, empathy can be facilitated. It also can be interrupted and blocked, but it cannot be forced to occur. What makes empathy unique, according to Stein, is that it happens to us; it is indirectly given to us, “non-primordially.” When empathy occurs, we find ourselves experiencing it, rather than directly causing it to happen. This is the characteristic that makes the act of empathy unteachable. Instead, promoting attitudes and behaviors such as self-awareness, nonjudgmental positive regard for others, good listening skills, and self-confidence are suggested as important in the development of clinicians who will demonstrate an empathic willingness.

Is empathy a cognitive attribute or a personality trait?

Interesting that the first element mentioned in this synopsis is self-awareness; I’m long a proponent of the idea that self-awareness is everything in driving teams. (Most teams don’t have it.)

Empathy Definition

A major profession where empathy would seem to be very relevant is medicine; you ever have a doctor with no real people skills or ability to connect? It’s brutal, especially if they’re going to tell you something bad. The Atlantic did a whole big story about teaching doctors empathy a while back, including this nugget:

While some people are naturally better at being empathic, said Mohammadreza Hojat, a research professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, empathy can be taught. “Empathy is a cognitive attribute, not a personality trait,” said Hojat, who developed the Jefferson Scale of Empathy, a tool used by researchers to measure it.

At this point, it seems like maybe a semantic issue. If you think empathy is a cognitive attribute, then by definition it can be taught. If you think it’s a personality trait, it can’t be; it can be developed, which is a form of learning, but it can’t necessarily be outright taught.

My personal views

I’ve been going back and forth on this as I put this blog post together. Personally, I think it can be taught — but I think it would require a very specific type of person to be willing to learn anything about increasing empathy. I think you’d need a combination of these generalized traits:

  • Self-awareness
  • Ability to appreciate difference
  • Curiosity
  • The desire to understand an issue/see other viewpoints
  • A belief that something is in it for you

I wish I didn’t have to list that last one, but I don’t believe anything is really 100 percent altruistic. Most people chase new behaviors because someone told them “Hey, this could get you __________,” be it “promoted” or “a girlfriend.” We think about things in short-term bursts; this is especially true for guys.

There are some evidence-based tips for teaching empathy to children, as well as these from NYT’s parenting blog, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot about teaching adults empathy. That’s logical, tho: your brain is pretty plastic after about 25-26, and it can take 144 exposures to a new concept for it to “stick.” That much exposure to empathy, especially in a 24-7 go-go-go-profit-profit-profit world, is hard to come by.

Why does empathy truly matter?

The bottom line for all this stuff (for me) is that empathy is crucially important: it drives effective work teams, yes, but that’s hardly the damn point here. The bigger point is incidents like Adam Lanza. If more people around him were empathetic to his situation, maybe things would have been different. Now … maybe you think I’m saying that a crazy kid shooting kindergartners is our fault. I’m not. There’s a balance, though. At some point, we need to start getting better at understanding others, or our problems will continue to extrapolate.

But if that core connection point of humans — empathy — can’t be taught, then a lot of this responsibility does fall to the parents and caretakers. Then we need to start thinking about that role more as “Empathizers” and less as “Putting Food On The Table” (although No. 2 is important, obviously).

What do you think? Can empathy be taught?

Ted Bauer


  1. This is an interesting concept. It reminds me of the IQ vs. EQ debate that seems to come up intermittently. Like most topics you cover, this has many layers and could easily fill a book or two. I’m thinking that Millennials and Centennials (the new generational broad generalization for people born in 2000+), are taught that everything they do is awesome. There are participation awards, and people under a certain age have been told that they’re number 1, even if they finish dead last in something.

    I’m seeing this strange dichotomy between encouragement and force-fed egoism that seems diametrically opposed to this idea of teaching or even developing empathy. I could also envision people being wary about becoming more empathetic, fearing the increased possibility of their empathy being exploited and therefore being taken advantage of.

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