Empathy is a Means to an End

There is an important difference between empathy and empathizing.

Let’s start from where we left off in part 1.

In part 1 of this series, I defined empathy as follows:

Empathy is a word invented to explain what makes it possible for us to move from not feeling connected or at one with an “other” to feeling so. The feeling may last a brief moment or a prolonged duration of time and the “other” may be either a piece of artwork or another person.

Please stay tuned, as this definition will continue to evolve as the series unfolds.

To be clear, I did not define the word to claim authority over it. “Then why did you do it?” You may ask.

First of all, I did it to reduce misunderstandings. In Chinese, the word for “name(名)” is made of two characters 夕 and 口. The top character depicts the moon(夕) and connotes “darkness.” The lower character depicts a mouth(口) and means “to make a sound.” Here’s one interpretation of the word. When it gets dark outside, you have to say your name out loud so others can know who you are. The implication being that when it’s bright outside and we can see each other, a name is no longer needed. I felt the same way about defining empathy. Given that I’m in the dark on how you define the word “empathy,”[1] I wanted to say mine out loud so you know what I am talking about.

More importantly, I wanted to make a distinction between an experience and a means to the experience. I wanted to distinguish between empathizing,which is experiencing connection or oneness with an “other,” and empathy, which is a means to having such an experience.

Why make such a distinction?” You may ask.

We can know for ourselves when we are experiencing a sense of connection or oneness with an “other.” We can also know when we are not. In other words, an experience is something for which we can acquire empirical evidence. At the same time, such empirical evidence says nothing about what made such an experience possible. Empathy fills this gap by standing in as the what. Of course, a word isn’t the real means for having such an experience. It is a label for the means for having such an experience. So what we have in addition to empathy is many hypotheses.

For example, you may have had trouble experiencing connection or oneness with someone who said or did something that, to you, seemed stupid. But after you understood their situation, their needs, and the thought process they used to navigate their situation and fulfill their needs, you may have been able to experience connection or oneness with them. Based on this observation, you may come up with a hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to see things from that other person’s perspective.” This is one hypothesis often associated with empathy.

On the other hand, you may have also had an experience where you felt connected or at one with someone, yet you did not see anything from their perspective. Instead, it was something about the way they listened to you that helped you feel connected or at one with them. Based on this observation, you may come up with another hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to be listened to by them in a particular way.” This is another hypothesis often associated with empathy.

How about another one? You may have taken a mime class, where you felt connected or at one with another person while mirroring their behavior. Here, there was no seeing from their perspective or even being listened to in a particular way. Based on this observation, you may come up with yet another hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to mimic their behavior.” This is also a hypothesis often associated with empathy.

The point I want to make is that the list goes on.

In fact, I invite you to come up with as many hypotheses as you’d like. I also invite you to test them in different situations and discuss your findings with others doing the same thing. You may learn that there are different ways to hypothesize about the observations you’ve made.

This is why I find the distinction between empathy and empathizing valuable.

With the distinction between empathy and empathizing in place, we no longer have to take other people’s opinion on what empathy is as the gospel. We can think and decide for ourselves through experiments.

That’s not all.

Using the distinction as a common framework, we can also work together to accumulate a body of knowledge on what makes it possible for each of us to go from not feeling connected or at one with an “other” to feeling so.

Do you not find that valuable?

I hope you’ll join me in building this body of knowledge.


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[1] Batson, Daniel. “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related But Distinct Phenomena.” In The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Edited by Jean Decety and William John Ickes. Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 2009. 3–15. 4.

Original article from Huffington Post / Photo credit to Christopher Michel

The Resentment Threshold

There are no perfect leaders, only real ones.

That might as well have been the name of the latest Dove campaign. Except, it wasn’t. It was called “There are no perfect moms, only real ones.”

Here it is.

There are no perfect moms, only real ones / Dove

As I watched it, I was reminded of all the Founders/CEOs with whom I’ve worked and continue to work. I was inspired enough to make the following remix of the transcript for them.

Although I use the words “CEO” and “Founder” in the remix, the same script can apply to middle managers or anyone who feels personal responsibility for the well-being of other humans.

Leader 1: Everybody has ideas on what it means to be a “good leader.” And most people feel like they have a license to tell you (laughs) what they think it means to be a “good leader.”

Leader 2: I’m a first time CEO and I’m just figuring it out as I go. Often times people who lead other companies, people who call themselves leadership consultants, people who used to lead companies, they all want you to do it their way. But I have to be that person that stands the ground.

Leader 3: What we do here is unconventional. Because our team is made up of people from significantly different nationalities using their second language to communicate with each other. I would say they have such a different set of challenges. They’re facing something unique.

Leader 4: We’re both our team’s CEO. You get people that are like “What do you mean you’re both CEOs?” We’re like “Yup. (laughs) We’re gonna be co-CEOs.”

Leader 5: I live to be the best version of myself, and I can be. Part of that is being a CEO. But I live to dance. I can do my art and not be any less of a CEO.

Leader 6: I found my startup without a co-founder. I’m happy where I am. I get to make business decisions on my own.

Leader 7: There are so many ways to be a leader. I don’t think I can be the leader that I want to be without climbing being in my life. It keeps me who I am and allows me to be a really good leader to my team.

Leader 4: There’s no one right way to do it all.

Leader 1: You are the only expert of your own team and organization.

Leader 2: Believe in yourself. Believe in your ability as a human being. What you can do is what you can do.

Leader 3: Do what fits your organization. And trust yourself.

This commercial struck a chord with me because I’ve found that feeling personal responsibility for the well-being of others to be one of the most anxiety-inducing experiences ever. For many Founders/CEOs, the pressure to make payroll each month is stressful enough. It goes without saying how much stress is involved in parenthood.

A common byproduct of feeling a sense of personal responsibility for the well-being of others is feeling like we should do things for them. (An instinct often fueled by compassion.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or bad about doing things for others. In fact, one could argue that it is one of most noble things we could do. What I find interesting is that there are times when we cross the threshold of “doing things for others” and unknowingly enter into the realm of “expecting things from others.”

Let me take my parents as an example.

My father’s interest lies primarily in playing sports. My mother loves playing sports, too. At the same time, her primary interest lies in history and archeology, especially around the topic of musical performance. Given this difference in interests, my mother has spent her entire marriage looking for a solution to a seemingly simple challenge.

“How can I get my husband to be interested in the things I’m interested?”

She tried to get him to watch historical period dramas on TV. She tried to teach him how to sing. She tried to take him to different historical landmarks around the world. She tried to get him to read history books.

All. Failed.

Then recently, my mother came to the following realization:

I need to stop doing so much for my husband.”

When asked “What do you mean?” she said she has always wanted her husband to change because she personally felt responsible for his well-being. When probed further, she said she wanted him to change for his own good. In other words, she considered her efforts to change him as doing him a favor. So when she saw that he was unwilling to change, she associated his behavior with a lack of appreciation for the effort she was putting in to doing him a favor. This naturally lead her to feel resentment. Well… she no longer wanted to feel resentment. Thus, the need to stop doing so much for her husband.

My mother also came to accept that my father is happy staying interested in sports and sports only. As much as he may come to value acquiring other interests in the future, he did not find it sufficiently valuable now. For now, what he valued more greatly was to feel accepted and appreciated for the way he was. (Can you spot the Gordian Knot?)

I remember doing the same thing when I was an employee. As an employee, I did my best to provide value to my employer. Not only did I do this, but I did my best to do them well. Very well, in fact. Although, after a certain threshold of “well,” I started to feel resentment. Why? Because I was not appreciated or acknowledged for doing these things well.

What’s obvious in hindsight is that the things I did extra well were things I valued greatly, not things my employer valued greatly. Since my employer did not value those things enough, it was no wonder the employer was not spontaneously inspired to appreciate them. In fact, my employer was probably frustrated with me for not doing the things he valued instead.

I do not wish to judge people’s lack of appreciation for certain things as good/bad or right/wrong. What I want to highlight is that when we feel personally responsible for someone or even some thing, it’s easy to forget that there is a threshold at which we stop doing things for them and start expecting things from them. When those expectations are not met, it’s quite natural for us to feel resentment.

I’ve come to call this the “resentment threshold.”

Being a leader can often feel like a thankless job. When we lead well, people often take it for granted. When we make a mistake, people sometimes criticize us until they can see us fall to our knees. Yet we show up to work each and every day, because there’s something tugging at us. There’s someone or something we feel personally responsible for. At the same time, it’s worth noting that this same personal care can also blind us as we cross the resentment threshold.

If you’re willing, I’d like to invite you to practice noticing yourself crossing the resentment threshold. Not to judge the crossing as bad or wrong. Rather, to stay with it for a while and to be curious enough to notice it repeatedly. If it helps, you may also ask yourself the following question.

What lessons are my crossing the resentment threshold challenging me to learn?”

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Photo credit to Mark Bonica

Empathy is an Explanation

We often forget that empathy is, first and foremost, a word.

Words mean different things to different people. Thus, one of the most difficult parts of writing my book has been to come to a resolution on what empathy is.

I browsed through what felt like a hundred different definitions of empathy. It all came down to a simple fact. Empathy is, first and foremost, a word. Not any word, but a word invented to explain an event.[1] An event observed and experienced by a philosopher.

The word “empathy” is a translation of a German word “einfühlung,” invented by Robert Vischer, a German philosopher. His goal was to explain how people can go from not experiencing a sense of unity (often referred to as “connection” or “oneness”) with a piece of artwork to experiencing it.[2] It’s like how Sir Isaac Newton invented the word “gravity” to explain how an apple can go from being above the ground to being on the ground.

Soon afterward, another German philosopher named Theodore Lipps entered the scene. He proceeded to expand the meaning of “einfühlung” to also explain how we experience the same sense of connection and oneness with another human being. A British psychologist named Edward Titchener then imported the word into the English language as “empathy.”[3]

As you can see, the word “empathy” has changed in meaning throughout history. I have no doubt that it will continue to do so. What will stay constant is the opportunity to feel as if we are connected or at one with an “other.” An “other” with which we previously felt disconnected, divided, or even at odds. Whether this happens for a moment or for a prolonged duration of time and whether that “other” is a piece of artwork or another person, the feeling is the same.[4]

I’m seeing popular articles being written to argue for or against empathy. They are well-intended. Those “against empathy” worry that we may do harm by being “for empathy.” Those “for empathy” feel the same way about being “against empathy.” Personally, I find arguing for or against empathy akin to arguing for or against gravity. Whether we like it or not, empathy is here to stay. What matters is how we leverage it and to what end.

When our primary mode of communication is through words, it’s easy to get caught up in a war of definitions. Yet, it is not the word “empathy,” but our ability to move from not experiencing a sense of connection or oneness with an “other” to experiencing it, that will make the most difference in our lives. No matter the route we take to navigate that journey or how difficult that journey may be, the fact that we can move there is what gives me hope for the future of our humanity.

I hope you’ll join me in not losing sight of this.

I invite you to discuss this further in our Facebook Group.


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[1] Herwig-Lempp. Johannes. Explanatory Principle.

[2] Nowak, Magdalena. The Complicated History of Einfühlung.

[3] Titchener, Edward B. Lectures of the Experimental Psychology of Thought Processes, New York, Macmillian, 1909.

[4] Just to be clear, this is not to anthropomorphize pieces of artwork or to claim that they have minds like human beings. It simply means that when it comes to empathy, we’re talking primarily about our ability to have an experience of connection or oneness with an “other,” not merely our ability to analyze them. It is also not to imply that every single person on the entire planet can experience such connection or oneness. I have no way of proving that. There are also various individual differences in the kinds of “other” with which we can feel such connection or oneness. For example, many programmers feel such connection or oneness with computers. Not everyone can feel this.

Original article from Huffington Post / Photo credit to Vanna

Going Beyond Leader-Shaming

It took me about twenty five years before I started to perceive my mother as a human being.

I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that I’m not alone.

We don’t always perceive people as human beings.

“Then how do we perceive them?” you may ask.

As a means to our end.

As a teenager, I often perceived my mother as a means to permission, money, and food. She was the means to me going out with my friends, buying things I wanted, or eating breakfast, dinner, and sometimes even lunch.

Horrible, I know…

Of course, I intellectually understood that I should feel gratitude towards her for giving birth to me and for raising me. Unfortunately, those were rarely visceral experiences. So most of the times, I perceived her as mere means to my end.

The same holds true in our perception of our leaders.

I was once an employee myself. In some ways, I still am to my clients. I have also spent a significant amount of time listening to employees inside organizations as their meta-designer. In this journey, I’ve noticed at least threeinter-related lenses through which we perceive our leaders as mere means to our ends.

1. As a means to our survival: “I joined this company, because I need financial security. I keep my leader happy to meet this need.”

  • When we perceive our leaders as a means to our survival, they are an object of authority. Through that lens, we tend to latch on to every literal word they say, because it can potentially threaten our survival. A common symptom of this is when we interpret a passing and even humorous comment or suggestion they make as either an order or as a representation of our company’s values and vision.

2. As a means to achieving our goal: “I joined this company to make cool things that make an impact in the world. The leader will help me achieve that goal.”

  • When we perceive our leaders as a means to achieving our goals, they are an object of either our aid or obstacle. Through that lens, we tend to feel entitled to judge them, because it’s clear to us whether they are aiding us well enough or downright getting in our ways. A common symptom of this is when we spend an exorbitant amount of time talking about how wonderful we are compared to how bad our leaders are. According to Dr. Goldsmith, on average, 65% of all interpersonal communications in companies involve talking about (or listening to someone talk about) how smart, special, or wonderful we are and how stupid, inept, or bad someone else is.

3. As a means to our identity: “We have such an amazing leader! The leader is my role model!” or “We have such a horrible leader! The leader is my anti-role model!”

  • When we perceive our leaders as a means to our identity, they are an object to be either copied or rebelled against. Through that lens, everything they say or do is something we aspire to replicate or differentiate ourselves from. A common symptom of this is when we side with our leaders to argue against the fresh perspective of a new team member or when we side with a new team member against our leader.

Instead of judging these lenses as good/bad or right/wrong, I want to highlight how they give rise to misunderstandings inside organizations.

1. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object of authority, we’re likely to interpret their suggestions as promoting compliance. If we end up feeling repulsed by these interpretations, we’re also likely to distance ourselves from our leaders.

  • Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to encourage autonomy and self-direction. Sometimes even to connect with their team members through said suggestions. I find this akin to my mother saying things to me casually or with the intention of connecting with me, while I would merely interpret them as coercive or offensive. I just thought an authority figure should know to do better.

2. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object of our aid or obstacle, we’re likely to interpret their decisions as short-sighted and selfish.

  • Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to make decisions for the company’s long-term sustainability and the well-being of the team. I find this akin to my mother making difficult decisions for the long-term benefit of our family and my well-being. Without having been part of the honest emotional struggles of the decision making process, I had no other choice, but to interpret her decisions as short-sighted and selfish.

3. So long as we perceive our leaders as an object to be copied or rebelled against, we’re likely to interpret their communication efforts as a form of indoctrination.

  • Yet, when I mediate such conflicts, I tend to discover that the leader’s intention was to encourage creativity and critical thinking. It’s also often the case that the communication efforts came from a place of worry. Worry of their team making a mistake or getting lost. I find this akin to my mother telling me what I should do in the future and what she thinks are the important things in life. She was saying these things because she was worried I may get hurt or lost, while I just thought she was trying to get me to think like her.

Once again, instead of judging right/wrong or good/bad, I want us to recognize that these misunderstandings are born out of the inherent difficulties of seeing through the eyes of others. It’s too simplistic to judge them as a result of poor leadership.

It’s true that some less experienced leaders try so hard to be equal that they have more trouble seeing themselves as their team members see them. At the same time, experienced leaders can also have the same blind spots. What’s important to note is that we can all develop the skills required to better prepare for and manage these blind spots by learning to realize our empathy.

Now that I’m in my 40s, I find that things have changed since I was 25. I am more likely to perceive my mother as beyond mere means to my end. I also interact with her in ways that are mutually empathic. Is it perfect? No. I’m happy that it is simply possible.

It all started with noticing myself shaming or blaming my mother, then gradually learning to choose a different set of contexts with which to interpret her words and behaviors.

Are we also willing to do the same with our leaders?

Some are. Some are not. For those willing, here’s a question you can ask yourself to get started.

“If I were unafraid of getting fired or judged, and wanted to use all the creativity and critical thinking I had to help the leader clarify and achieve the organization’s goals instead of my own, what would be the smallest next step I need to take?”

To be clear, you may say you’d rather leave the company. That is your choice. I just hope you’ll choose a better alternative than staying stuck shaming or blaming your leader. That isn’t helping anybody. As the saying goes…

“Holding on to resentment is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else.”

May you let go of the hot coal.


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Photo credit to Shawn Harquail