The Importance of Empathy 

By Kelly Pope, SV2 Get Proximate Co-Lead, SV2 Partner

This article is the fourth in a series about the principles and practice of getting proximate:

It is often said these days that we are living in an unprecedented time.  We are seeing disproportionate suffering from those experiencing the direct effects of the pandemic; first time visitors in long food bank lines, front-line health workers feeling the trauma of extended exhaustion, gig economy workers left months without a paycheck, and disproportionate sickness and death among people of color.  Layered on top of this are the deep political divisions and the loud cry to right the persistent injustices of racism.  As we watch these scenes play out, our anguish is tangible, yet we feel the need to turn the corner and unwind this confluence of societal maladies that have become so acute.  

It Starts with Empathy

What will be our first step towards healing and coming back together when so many people are hurting?  How do we provide the necessary mental health and economic support? How will we mend the divisions between people and communities when rejection of other points of view has become the norm? Whether we are looking through a national or local community lens, empathy is our first stepping stone on a path towards restoration.  Empathy is a core principle of getting proximate.

What is empathy and why is it important as we work to bring people together and move beyond our societal misunderstandings and divisions? 

Empathy has a variety of definitions, most commonly, the ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes”.   Paul Parkin, empathy teacher and researcher points out that we can never *actually* walk in someone else’s shoes, that we will always be making assumptions about people’s lives and perhaps dangerously misunderstanding them.  Instead, he defines empathy as  “a righteous struggle”

  • to sense someone’s emotions
  • to understand and share the feelings of someone else
  • to walk in someone else’s shoes

Empathy is hard and deserves those two precursors:  “righteous struggle”. 

If we truly make the effort to comprehend someone’s emotions and feel their lived experience, then the potential for compassion, understanding, and trust begins to unfold.  We start to care about others’ perspectives leading to deeper understanding and mutual respect.  We see people in our lives differently, we hear different narratives, and we become more accepting.

How to Build Empathy

Communication is the key to building empathy.  It should be curious and non-judgemental, compassionate, and validating to the other party, not just reconfirming our own preconceived notions.

The first step in an empathetic conversation is to approach it with an open mind and to be authentically curious. As a nation and local community, we must *want* to come together and foster mutual understanding. We must be curious and go outside our own comfort level, willing to reach beyond our own experiences to understand what others are feeling and experiencing.  

After being authentically curious, we must be open to hearing the lived experience of others and observe without judgement. If we allow judgement to creep in, we may revert to thought-bubbles that contain deficit, instead of asset-based vocabulary. We run the risk of falling back and relying on a single narrative, not allowing fresh stories to emerge. We must work to keep judgement at bay.  Instead, we must listen and observe with unconditional compassion.  Only when people feel seen, heard, and valued will they reciprocate by also giving and receiving without judgment.  When empathy is co-created in this way, it can be transformative. It acts as a flywheel to create more empathy, becoming a virtuous cycle.

How to Practice Empathy

There is a healthy debate whether empathy is a skill – a muscle that we need to practice in order to build, or whether empathy is a moral stance – how we move through the world. In either case, practicing empathy will make us better at it.

The best way to start practicing empathy is to get proximate with those you seek to understand/connect with.  Start a dialog, be present, and focus on connecting. Leave any preconceived notions at home. It is important to be curious, non-judgemental, compassionate, and ultimately, make sure your words are validating for the other party.  When we cultivate empathy in this deliberate way, we increase the capacity for connection between each other.

An interesting way to practice empathy is to try the Describe-Feel exercise¹.  The next time you see a provocative picture of a person’s face in a magazine or newspaper, divide a blank piece of paper in half.  On one side write Describe, the other side Feel.  Then follow these directions and write on the appropriate side.

  • Describe:
    • Look at the picture and try to notice the details about this person.
    • Objectively focus on the external features and appearance of the person.
    • Write one sentence describing the age, gender, and mood of this person..
  • Feel:
    • Look at the picture and try to feel what this person is feeling.
    • Empathetically focus on the internal experiences and feelings of this person.
    • Write one sentence describing the feelings and experiences of this person.

This exercise challenges us to look and feel beyond the surface of what we objectively observe.  

The result of practicing empathy is illustrated by researchers who published their findings on the outcomes of students who served in the national service program, Teach For America². They found that, compared to similar non-TFA students, the TFA students left their service “significantly more likely to attribute poverty to systemic issues rather than to poor people’s lack of individual effort.” The study illustrates that when we are proximately exposed to a situation or issue, our understanding of it deepens. As with many TFA alumni who stayed in public service even after leaving teaching, empathy increases our desire to address social justice issues.

Building a Culture of Empathy

SV2 Partners would likely score high on the empathy quotient.  Even so, we should actively put ourselves into situations to practice empathy.  All encounters are different, and sometimes practicing empathy can be hard.  Also, stress, like many of us are feeling now, can make showing/feeling empathy even harder.  

The benefits of making ourselves vulnerable and practicing empathy will make us feel more connected to one another and feel that we live in a more just and compassionate society.

When empathy is in the air, we listen more deeply and perceive feelings we did not know existed.  We begin to recognize some of the underlying systemic complexities and see the possibility that systems can change as the people within them change their opinions and attitudes. We become less judgemental.

Not surprisingly, empathy is contagious, and establishing compassion and kindness can create new social norms – norms that have the potential to spread. 

Together, we can create a world (or community) where everyone contributes to a culture that chooses to be aware of one another’s emotions and needs. That would be the best outcome in our “righteous struggle” for empathy.


¹Cameron, C. Darryl. “Empathy Is Hard Work: People Choose to Avoid Empathy Because of Its Cognitive Costs.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Genera, 2019, pp. 2-5,

²When Do the Advantaged See the Disadvantages of Others?