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Empathy is Not a Soft Skill

By May 16, 2024No Comments

“The first casualty of war is truth—the second is empathy. Empathy has to call for backup. The backup is in the form of radical empathy.”

-Lou Agosta, Assistant Professor of Medical Education at Ross Medical University at Saint Anthony Hospital

I recently came across the work of Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of Empathy Research and Training in Psychotherapy Research group in the Department of Psychiatry at Mass General Hospital. She is also the author of a book called The Empathy Effect.

Dr. Riess did a TED Talk on the power of empathy as well as the ability to monitor it neuroscientifically. She may have found proof that empathy is not a soft skill after all.

Reiss’ research has shown that empathetic observers have brain activity, heart rate and skin electrical conductance that mirror those of the person undergoing the emotional experience. Her findings could solidify an important set of skills that have often been dismissed as ‘soft.’

What is Empathy?

I always forget the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is polite. It says, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ or ‘I’m sorry to hear that you are going through that,’ or even ‘I’m happy for you.’ But sympathy is also distant. It is experienced from a third-person point of view.

Empathy is a shared experience. I feel your pain, I share in your joy, I’m walking a mile in your shoes. If you find yourself in a situation where someone’s happiness, sadness, or even anxiety is contagious, that’s empathy.

Empathy is hardly a new idea. In the mid-19th century, the German term Einfühlung referred to the emotional knowing of a work of art. Then Theodore Lipps, a psychologist who worked in the late 1800s talked about “feeling one’s way into the experience of another.”

The Physical Side of Feelings

With all of this talk of art and feelings, it is interesting that Dr. Riess’ focus is on the physical side of empathy.

She and her team conducted a study where pairs of doctors and patients were recorded and hooked to monitors during therapy sessions. By comparing the brainwaves of the doctor and the patient to each other and to what was being discussed in each part of the session, it was possible to see how in sync the two were.

The study showed that when the psychiatrist was empathetic, his or her brainwaves matched that of the patient, albeit in a muted way. They rose and fell together.

Personally, I think this is fascinating. The idea that we are hardwired to mirror the physical experience of another, whether that is experiencing part of their joy or flinching watching someone get hurt is incredible.

According to Dr. Riess, this is proof that we are communal animals by design, that ‘survival of the fittest’ does not govern every relationship or interaction.

As appealing as these findings are to me, not everyone agrees with Dr. Riess.

Lou Agosta, quoted at the top of this article, wrote a critical book review of Riess’ The Empathy Effect, offering criticism of the neuroscience part of her theory.

He is the Assistant Professor of Medical Education delivering empathy lessons and psychotherapy interventions at Ross Medical University at Saint Anthony Hospital.

Agosta challenges the idea that social neuroscience can prove the physiology of empathy. Most of his objections were a bit too technical for me, but he did say something interesting that reminds us to think expansively… 

“Yet brains do not think; people think. Brains do not express emotions; people express emotions. Brains do not intend this-or-that; people intend this-or-that. Brains do not become addicts; people become addicted. Brains do not empathize; people empathize. The mereological fallacy is a growth industry in social neuroscience. My brain made me do it? Hmmm. Human choice and commitment suggests your brain was definitely participating, but it is far from the whole narrative. The task is to avoid or contain the mereological fallacy, even while allowing social neuroscience to make its contributions in the areas of its strengths.”

My takeaway from this is to learn what we can from Dr Riess’ study, but not to stop digging… seems like good advice to me.

Purposefully Practicing Empathy

In her TED Talk, Dr. Riess offers an acronym to explain the different components of empathy:

  • Eye contact
  • Muscles of facial expression
  • Posture (open, closed)
  • Affect (expressed emotions)
  • Tone of voice
  • Hearing the whole person
  • Your response

I think we have a hard 6 months ahead of us. The Presidential election looms in the U.S., the world continues to be war-torn, and companies find themselves mired in social topics that threaten to win over one half of consumers or stakeholders while alienating the other half.

Could consciously practiced empathy make the difference? I think so.

This isn’t a ‘survival of the fittest’ game. Humans are communal creatures. Lasting success is achieved at the group level, and nothing capable of differentiating – not strategy or empathy – happens by accident.


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