Engaging with Empathy

Article published on techUK Insights and due for publication in "Winning Edge" in April 2017

Following my last article looking at how Aristotle’s three persuasive appeals – Ethos, Pathos and Logos – can be used to create winning proposals, I decided to dive deeper into Pathos. This led me to Roman Krznaric’s fascinating book on the subject. The two key features of the book are the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People and the plethora of examples of empathic people. In this article, I skim the surface of the six habits and pick my favourite characters or scenarios to illustrate each. 


Empathy defined


“The art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that to guide your actions.” 


So, empathy is all about discovering, understanding and accepting different tastes and views. We learn that there are two types of empathy: affective empathy, a shared emotional response, and cognitive empathy, which is about perspective-taking. It is important to develop both. And there is a distinction between empathy, which can relate to positive or negative situations, and sympathy (or compassion), which typically only has a negative connotation relating to pity or mercy in a bad situation.

A whistle-stop tour of empathy through the ages confirms it isn’t a new fad. We find empathy-related words and sayings from different languages around the world stem from centuries ago.

We are all wired for empathy, but it’s been swamped for centuries by a growing focus on ‘self’. Over four centuries, eminent scholars such as Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud have reinforced the idea that humans are naturally selfish and aggressive – we must compete to survive.

In modern times, who hasn’t heard the phrases "Looking after number one“ and “WIIFM” (what’s in it for me?). Instant gratification, happiness through therapy, and craving to be slim, beautiful and fashionable are hallmarks of today’s society. All this is fuelled by marketing and social media. Yet many people are still dissatisfied and feel unfulfilled. Tuning back into our empathic brains could be just the answer.

Having set the scene, Krznaric introduces us to the Six Habits. Let’s step through them. And remember, this time around we are just getting familiar with the theory - next time we will apply it in our world. But just for fun, I’ll set a little challenge for each Habit, which you can ponder with personal or professional examples.


Habit One: Switch on your empathic brain


Shifting our mental frameworks to recognise that empathy is at the core of human nature, and that it can be expanded throughout our lives.”


Habit One is really all about tuning into and recognising empathy. To convince us that it’s really there in all of us, Krznaric describes three ground-breaking advances in understanding empathy.

First, neuroscientists have identified an empathy circuit responsible for cognitive and affective empathy – it includes mirror neurons, which allow us to feel what other people feel or do what others are doing in a form of imitation or mimicry. Examples being yawning when you see someone yawn or flinching when someone is hurt.

Second, evolutionary biology has proven we are naturally cooperative and empathic like primates (and other animals). Research into apes shows how they groom, protect and comfort each other.

Finally, child psychology shows that even small children can see things from others' perspectives. My favourite example is a story of a child who learnt to give her brother his favourite toy when he cried rather than her favourite toy, which had been her first inclination.

The good news is that we can all learn to be more empathic early or late in life. Training doctors to have a better ‘bedside manner’ has produced benefits for doctors as well as patients - doctors feel more fulfilled and patients feel more satisfied.

Habit Two: Make the imaginative leap


“Making a conscious effort to step into other people's shoes - including our “enemies" - and to acknowledge their humanity, individuality and perspectives.”


Habit Two takes us to the next stage – really tuning in to other people. But we meet four barriers that tend to prevent us doing this.

Prejudice, for example in the form of stereotyping, tends to cause us to pre-judge people and jump to conclusions, often negative ones. This can prevent us appreciating good qualities.

Authority often gets in the way of people’s empathy - poor behaviour is often blamed on simply ‘following orders’. 

And then there is distance and denial. We have less empathy with people if they are distanced from us through geography, community or social position – we care more about those who are close – and it’s easy to ‘turn a blind eye’ especially when they are far away or we feel disconnected from them.

Highly empathic people tend to be more open-minded and prepared to defy authority. They treat everyone as individuals and humans, even those they dislike or fear. 

Habit Three: Seek experiential adventures


“Exploring lives and cultures that contrast with our own through direct immersion, empathetic journeying and social cooperation.”


Habit Three is about taking a bigger step towards understanding and really stepping into someone else’s shoes. Krznaric tells of people who have travelled and lived, often in disguise, to experience first-hand the lives of others. Sharing these adventures often contributed to major social reform – take Gunter Wallraff, a German who posed as a Turkish immigrant cleaning toilets. His book, "Lowest of the Low", charting his abuse by employers, citizens and authority sold 2m copies and led to changes in protection of foreign labour. Other empathic journey-folk changed corporate attitudes. Patricia Moore was a 1970s designer who changed the face of design after taking on the persona of an 85-year old woman over three years to understand age-related issues and inform the design process.


Habit Four: Practice the art of conversation


“Fostering curiosity about strangers and radical listening, and taking off our emotional masks.”


If Habits One, Two and Three are about tuning in, refining the frequency and observing from behind a mask, Habit Four is about really engaging. It’s about being a genuine, interested enquirer. It’s about asking questions, caring about the answers and showing some vulnerability. 

In the age of email, text and social media, picking up the telephone is hard enough let alone actually making eye contact and starting a conversation with a stranger. But that is what we need to do to re-engage with society and each other in a truly empathic way. Anything less and we risk being remote and superficial. Contrast the inspired idea of the lady called Sarah, who invited all the other Sarahs in her office block to meet for a chat, with the concept of Chatroulette where you take pot luck with an online conversation and just drop it for another if you get bored.


Habit Five: Travel in your armchair


“Transporting ourselves into other people's minds with the help of art, literature, film and online.”


Although Habit Five risks being second-hand experience, ‘armchair empathy’ has history and merit. Theatre, films, photos, books and songs have aroused emotion and inspired action throughout the ages. 

Well-targeted and used carefully, our senses can be developed and refined by different media.  When fired up, empathy can help to modify views and change attitudes. Who hasn’t been moved by books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”? In their day, they brought injustice into sharp relief.

We must just be mindful that our emotions can be dulled by too much emotional fatigue and we can drift into sympathy rather than empathy, or even back to distance and denial. We need to tune into our media sensitively.

Habit Six: Inspire a revolution


“Generating empathy on a mass scale to create social change, and extending our empathy skills to embrace the natural world.”


Habit Six is somewhat ambitious and I’m not about to suggest we all revolt. However, Krznaric takes us into the final furlong with examples of major national and global change that were fuelled by mass empathy.  The abolition of slavery and civil rights reforms would never have happened if people hadn’t started to really understand the experiences of others.  

In more recent times, global charities and environmental movements have helped protect people and places. Think Live Aid and Greenpeace.




Krznaric’s book runs to 244 pages, not including the notes and acknowledgements. I doubt I have done it justice in this short article. But, it did inspire me. Next time, I’ll share my thoughts about how the Habits map onto selling. Until then…   

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