In Your shoes

On 2 September 2015 a story stirred something in thousands of people across Europe. For months the news had been inundated with stories of the Syrian refugee crisis, a mumble in the background as we all carried on with our busy lives. But on that morning the image of a small lifeless figure on a beach in Turkey, lying on his front, the palms of his hands and the soles of his tiny shoes facing towards the sky, drove through the shell of oblivion. The image appeared on 20 million screens in just 12 hours. 

Another image shows an unsettled policeman carrying the toddler’s body up the beach, cradling it as if he were still alive. 

Three-year-old Alan Kurdi drowned with his five-year old brother Ghalib and mother Rehenna while attempting to cross the Aegean Sea; only their father Abdullah survived. He describes the confusion as the flimsy boat was tossed around by the sea:

‘I was holding my wife’s hand. But my children slipped through my hands. It was dark and everyone was screaming. I tried to catch my wife and children but there was no hope. One by one, they died.’

The story of one boy brought the crisis into sharp focus. The human connection was made so much more visceral by seeing one boy and one grieving husband and father. We could understand the pain of one where the ‘many’ had become a blur of data and reports. The crisis of people fleeing civil war in Syria suddenly made sense. The image quickly went viral on social media with the hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (‘humanity washed ashore’).  Charities supporting refugees saw a dramatic upturn in donations. The amount given to the Swedish Red Cross, for example, was fifty-five times greater in the week following Kurdi’s death.

Perhaps before this the Syrian refugee crisis was too intangible to relate to. A dead child, however, was not. Perhaps most Europeans living in peaceful countries simply could not imagine the terrors faced by these refugees; or maybe up to this point they were the ‘out-group’, people different from ‘us’, which limited our empathic concern. 

When asked if we are empathic, most of us will say ‘yes’. But wait a moment before you jump in with your answer. While are all born with the capacity to be empathic, this tragedy illustrates just one of the ways that we can unwittingly switch off our empathy. 

Empathy and the Out Group 

We have evolved to favour the in-group over the out-group. The driving force for this is simple: not being part of a group causes psychological distress. Individual sociability may vary, but we are innately social beings that yearn to be accepted by other people. Neuroscientific evidence indicates that people invariably favour other members of their in-group over people who are outside of the group. If someone exhibits unusual personality traits – such as a sardonic sense of humour or quirky dress sense – we subconsciously accept them if they are part of our group but tend to see the same tendencies as flaws if that person is not in our in-group. 

Shutting Down Empathy to Prevent Pain 

Another reason we can fail to be empathic is because we shut our empathy down. It hurts to feel others pain and so to protect ourselves we use mechanisms to prevent this pain, which can become unwittingly ingrained in who we are or at least how we behave. Take for example doctors, a profession where empathy is needed but is often lacking. This is not just my opinion, there is plenty of research to back this up. 

While nurses and doctors can give us immense hope by simply telling us everything will work out OK and motivate us to get better if we take care of ourselves, equally they can quickly pull us down with one thoughtless comment or ill-fitting piece of advice. They can make us question ourselves: ‘Maybe I’m not in that much pain, perhaps there is nothing that is wrong with me?’, even when we have been in agony for days. 

It’s not hard to see why empathic communication skills are critical to positive outcomes in patients being linked to increased diagnostic accuracy, a positive impact on the extent to which patients adhere to treatment plans, lower levels of emotional distress  and more positive patient outcomes. 

But although empathy, is positive, it can also go the wrong way and cause burnout and distress to those exhibiting it. After all, feeling what every patient is going through literally hurts at an emotional level. Anyone who watches Grey’s Anatomy will know that the character Izzie Stevens gets pulled along an emotional rollercoaster as a result of feeling the pain of her patients. 

I’ve worked with doctors and surgeons who are both highly empathic and others who have shut down their feeling, which serves an unconscious protection. And studies across the world have shown that as medical students pass through their studies their levels of empathy typically decline. Have you shut down your empathy? 

Emotional and Cognitive Empathy 

What medical schools don’t teach is that it’s possible to have empathy while not burning out. Moving through the brain from emotional empathy where that pain is felt, to cognitive empathy where the pain is understood. A bit like 

The second type is called ‘cognitive empathy’ and involves understanding the emotion and what another person is feeling, but not being engulfed by it. This is different from becoming immunised against emotion, which involves shutting that feeling down as a protective mechanism. Cognitive empathy in contrast illustrates a more developed capability than either emotional empathy or emotional immunity. 

We can liken this to everyday emotions that we experience. Imagine that someone really annoyed you at work or even at home, and that you are so angry that you want to shout and scream at them. But you don’t: you stop yourself, assessing that feeling instead of giving in to it, and decide that shouting wouldn’t be helpful in the long run. The emotional regions of your brain elicits the initial feeling and your more rational areas of the brain then decides what to do with it. This is in effect what happens with emotional and cognitive empathy. 

Empathy and Stress 

Even for those of us who believe we are empathic; we can lose it. For example, Neuroscientist Tania Singer found that the part of our brain has an autocorrect mechanism, preventing us from looking only at our own feelings in a situation and ensuring that we are able to see things from others’ perspectives. However, when we have to make very quick, reactionary decisions, we lose this capability—in effect, overriding our  empathy. 

So when do we get empathy and can we become more empathic?

We continue to develop empathy throughout life. It begins when we stare into our mother’s eyes shortly after we are born and continues through childhood. But it doesn’t stop there. We build it through ever part of life while meaningfully connecting with others. The problem is that we’re losing it, not just because of the barriers I’ve already mentioned – in groups and out groups, shutting it down as a protective mechanism or losing it because we are stressed or working to quickly, but because of the impact of the way society operates more broadly. 

“More and more, we live in bubbles. Most of us are surrounded by people who look like us, vote like us, earn like us, spend money like us, have educations like us and worship like us. The result is an empathy deficit, and it’s at the root of many of our biggest problems.” (New York Times). 

There are many personal benefits to being empathic, from success in life, leadership and well-being to the organisational benefits, empathy enables      diversity & inclusion, through to the societal benefits – creating a better, more sustainable and more humane future. 

And sadly, there is evidence that our levels of empathy are on the decline. But there’s also evidence to suggest that we can continue to develop our empathy throughout life. There are some great tips in the NYT article referred to and of course in my books. But very simply speaking

  • Empathy and the Outgroup 

be conscious of putting yourself in others’ shoes, listen, watch, be curious and try to understand. This will help you to overcome outgroup biases that you are probably completely unaware of, but that could have a hugely negative impact on someone else. 

  • Empathy Shut Down 

If you feel too little, allow yourself to experience what others are going through. Really make the effort to imagine yourself in their position. If this is hard speak to them to find out as much as you can, the more you know, the easier it will become to experience empathic concern.

  • Moving Emotional Empathy to Cognitive Empathy 

If you feel too much, work on how to take a step back, still feeling but making it a more rational process. This will help you to help others far more effectively and prevent burnout. 

  • Empathy and Stress

Remember that when you’re stressed you’re less likely to see someone else’s point of view. Pause, reflect and take time to consider the impact before moving on. 

Do these things every day and even remind yourself with every interaction. These may sound like simple things to do, but if you make a conscious effort to include them in your daily to do list, you’ll be amazed at how much it enriches your connections, your life and even your success.  And you will be contributing to making our world a better place. 


Some of the above was adapted from Mirror Thinking – How Role Models Make Us Human

If you’d like to listen to this as audio go to

The New York Times Article referred to

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