Why Empathy Matters
by Robert Brooks, PhD
WHEN ASKED TO NAME the
most important characteristics of a successful adult, I reply that there
are several, but I always emphasize empathy. Being empathic means being
able to place oneself inside the shoes of another person and to see the
world through that person’s eyes. As my colleague Sam Goldstein
and I have discussed in our books about resilience, empathy is one of
the most vital skills in any relationship and is imbedded in the mindset
of the successful person.
When I use the word "successful," I define it not in terms of income
level or social status. While these may be important variables, I am
more interested in contentment with one's life, in the ability to strive
for excellence and not be derailed by mistakes, to relate comfortably
with others, and to help others to feel special and appreciated.
Empathy implies that you consider how other people perceive situations,
how they perceive you, and how they would describe you. If a person is
lacking in empathy, he or she is likely to misread what is transpiring
in a situation and misunderstand the intentions of others. It is not
surprising that social scientist Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional
Intelligence and Social Intelligence, listed empathy as
one of the main components of both of these intelligences.
Many individuals consider themselves empathic when, in fact, that is not
the case. Achieving empathy requires diligence and thoughtfulness.
Typically it is easier to be empathic toward people who agree with us or
toward children who do what we request. Yet, if we truly want others to
work cooperatively with us, we must consider their perspective as well
as their perceptions of us. Therefore, the person striving to be
empathic is guided chiefly by two questions:
In anything I say
or do, what do I hope to accomplish? Many people are
able to answer this question easily enough; it basically focuses on
one's goals and/or objectives.
Am I saying or doing it in a
way in which the other person will be most responsive to hearing and
listening to me? I have witnessed countless examples
of well-meaning parents, teachers, and businesspeople saying or doing
things that actually work against their goals.
For instance, the parents of a temperamentally shy daughter (we now know
that many youngsters are born shy or cautious) constantly implored her
to make friends. Understandably, their goal was for her to develop
friendships. Their anxiety led them to frequently ask her, "Did you
speak with any kids in school today?" and "Did you invite anyone over to
When this child was out with her parents and encountered people they
knew, she would bashfully glance down. In prodding her to say hello, the
parents barely disguised their anger and frustration. Of course, this
actually increased her withdrawal. All of us want our children to be
socially adept, but how would we feel if we were shy and were constantly
chided, especially in front of others, to speak up and not be so
A more empathic approach for these parents would be to tell their child
privately, "I know that it isn't easy for you to say hello. A lot of
kids have the same difficulty. But maybe together we can figure out what
will begin to help, since many kids as they grow find it easier to say
hello to others and learn what to say to their friends." A simple
statement such as this, which contains a heavy dose of compassion and
hope, can establish a foundation for a child to feel increasingly
accepted. This allows a child, with the assistance of parents, to
develop strategies for being less withdrawn and shy; it also promotes
the notion that problems invite problem solving, which is an integral
belief involved with becoming more resilient.
RECOGNIZING ROADBLOCKS TO EMPATHY
Some individuals have an easier time than others in developing
empathy. But I believe it is a skill that can be nurtured, even in those
children and adults who might be considered as having an “empathy
deficit.” First, it may be helpful to examine the obstacles we may
face as we take steps to improve this skill. Becoming aware of these
obstacles will make them easier to manage.
A lack of models. If we
grew up in a home where our communications were not validated and we
were told how we should feel or not feel, it is more difficult to learn
to take the perspective of another person. While having empathic parents
does not guarantee that we will develop that quality, it is certainly an
I recall a family therapy meeting in which a teenage girl mentioned that
she felt very depressed. Her mother responded, “But there’s
no reason for it. We give you everything you need and we’re a
loving family.” The mother meant to be reassuring, but her
response led the girl to withdraw further. If the mother had shown more
empathy in validating her daughter's words (such as, “I’m
glad you could let us know how you feel; together we can try to figure
out what would help you to feel less depressed”), I am certain her
daughter would have been more responsive. The girl would also have been
exposed to someone demonstrating empathy.
Being upset, angry, or
disappointed in people. Individuals who are angry often say
hurtful things to their children, their spouse, or others that they
would not have said if they were less stressed and frustrated.
I was seeing a shy, socially immature seven-year-old boy in therapy when
he received an invitation to a classmate’s birthday party—a
rare event for him, so he was very excited. The party turned disastrous
when several boys told him he didn’t belong. When his mother came
to pick him up, she saw him seated by himself, looking withdrawn and
sad. Her anxiety and frustration surged and she said, “No wonder
you don’t have any friends, you always sit by yourself!”
Immediately she wished to take back her words, especially as she saw her
son’s tears. She cried as she described this situation to me. Her
anxiety and disappointment had interfered with her capacity to empathize
with her son's plight and offer the support he needed.
I’m right, you’re
wrong! Some individuals have a reflex negative reaction toward
anyone who has an opinion different from theirs. Their entire demeanor
suggests that they are poised for attack. An intense need to be right
can blind a person from seeing other perspectives. It is difficult to
empathize with others when we are constantly defensive and unwilling to
STRATEGIES FOR STRENGTHENING EMPATHIC
Given these potential obstacles, what can we do to strengthen
empathy? As Sam Goldstein and I highlight in The Power of
Resilience, I believe that if we can keep these guidelines in focus
and practice them regularly, we can achieve greater capacity for
Accept that empathy is a vital
skill for successful relationships. This acceptance typically
demands that we must be very clear about what empathy is and is not.
Some people confuse being empathic with giving in or not being
assertive. Empathy has nothing to do with giving in. One can be empathic
and yet disagree with another person. One can be empathic and validate
what another person is saying yet hold an entirely different view.
For instance, a student accused a teacher of not being fair when he had
to serve detention for insulting other students. He had already received
a warning. Rather than becoming defensive, the teacher said, “I
know you think I’m not being fair. So, I think it’s
important for us to review what led up to the detention, especially
since I would not like to see it happen again, and I don’t want
you to think I’m not being fair.” By first validating the
student’s perception, the teacher created a climate in which this
student was less defensive and more open to listening to the
teacher’s point of view, resulting in the student eventually
taking responsibility for his own behavior.
Try viewing yourself the way
others view you. In my workshops I offer the following exercise
as a way to strengthen empathic ability. If my talk is for teachers, for
example, I ask them to use a few words to describe both a teacher they
liked and a teacher they did not like when they were students. Then I
ask a few questions:
If I interviewed your students and asked them to
describe you, what words would you hope they use to describe you?
What words would they actually use?
How close are the two sets of words?
What changes can you make to help close the gap between
how you hope to be described and how you actually are?
Parents and partners can try this exercise, too. It emphasizes that each
and every interaction with others creates a perception of us, one that
plays a large role in determining how comfortably and cooperatively they
will relate to us.
Treat others as we would want to
be treated. Ask yourself: When I say or do things with my child
(partner, employee, patient), would I want anyone to say or do things to
me in the same way?
I recall observing a young child spilling a glass of milk in a
restaurant. His father slapped his hand and said, “What’s
the matter with you? Use your brains!” I wondered how that father
would have felt if he had spilled something and someone had slapped his
hand and yelled at him. Would the father have learned anything or would
he mainly be resentful?
self-reflection. If we find ourselves constantly at odds with
others, if our relationships are marked by anger and stress, if others
tend to tune us out, then it is advantageous to engage in honest
A father with whom I was working regularly recited to his son a list of
things that he thought needed improvement (e.g., homework being done on
time, keeping a cleaner room, having better friends). His son’s
behavior did not change. The father said, “He doesn’t listen
to me!” I asked how he would feel if someone recited the same list
to him night after night. It was as if a revelation struck this father:
“I would probably do what my son does. Who wants to hear one
negative thing after another?” Consequently, the father began to
focus on things his son did well, striving to lessen comments that his
son experienced as nagging. Their relationship improved noticeably.
Self-reflection can help us to appreciate what triggers our anger or
disappointment, how we can speak with people so that they will listen to
us even when we are frustrated with them, and how we would like others
to treat us. In this process of self-reflection and honesty, we may
require the support and insight of an objective person, perhaps a friend
or relative with whom we feel comfortable.
If the obstacles persist, we should seek the guidance of a counselor or
therapist. And remember, if you have struggled for years with problems
pertaining to empathy, it may take a while to change. Don’t become
discouraged. I believe very strongly that the benefits of being empathic
and having satisfying personal and professional relationships warrant
whatever time and energy are required to accomplish this goal.
AD/HD and Empathy
In simple terms, empathy may be defined as the capacity to put
oneself inside the shoes of other people and to see the world through
their eyes. Empathic people:
are able to take the perspective of others even when
attempt to understand how their words and deeds are
experienced and how others would describe them.
reflect upon and take responsibility for their
are able to realistically assess and appreciate the
If one examines characteristics often associated with AD/HD, one can
appreciate why many individuals with AD/HD struggle with empathy. It is
difficult to assume the perspective of another person when we:
have trouble “reading” social cues.
are impulsive, frustrated, or moody.
quickly interpret the actions of others as withholding
believe that others are not listening to us, especially
if they don’t agree with our point of view.
An adult patient I saw for AD/HD treatment summed up his improved sense
of empathy this way: “It wasn’t until I could slow down and
realistically separate what I was feeling from the intention of others
that I could become a more empathic person.”
A psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, Robert
Brooks, PhD, has a special interest in children and adults with AD/HD.
He has lectured nationally and internationally and has written
extensively about such topics as motivation, resilience, family
relationships, school climate, and balancing our personal and
professional lives. He has authored or coauthored fourteen books,
including The Self-Esteem Teacher (Treehaus, 1991); he
coauthored Raising Resilient Children (McGraw-Hill, 2001) and
The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal
Strength in Your Life (McGraw-Hill, 2004) with Sam Goldstein, PhD.
A former member of CHADD’s professional advisory board, Brooks has
also received the CHADD Hall of Fame Award.
From the April 2010 issue of Attention.
Copyright © 2010 by Children and Adults with
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from CHADD