Over the course of giving my Open Sourcing Mental Illness talk, I added a slide to the section about helping friends and co-workers. The slide just says:


Empathy is the most important attribute we can possess. I mean that not only in the context of helping people who are living with mental illness, but in general.

I should make sure we’re not confusing empathy with sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels, and why they may feel that way. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. While sympathy is appreciated1, it is far less powerful and useful than empathy.

Understanding how and why a person feels a certain way is key to understanding their behavior. Often, we dismiss someone as stupid or crazy or belligerent because of the words they say or actions they take. But each of us goes through a process to get where we are, and we rarely make choices that seem wrong at the time. Given the same environment and experiences, we may make very similar choices to those we mock or dismiss.

Empathy does not mean excusing behavior. It’s possible to feel empathy for someone who has done something awful. It’s difficult, to be sure, and that difficulty leads us to use a convenient label such as “evil” when describing people who have done terrible things. It’s very, very hard to empathize with someone who has done harm to innocent people. But if we cannot, it’s much harder for us to know why it happened, and how we can prevent it in the future. 2

In one of my Open Sourcing Mental Illness talks, I mentioned the kids who murdered their classmates in the Columbine shooting. It seemed like almost all of America called these kids “evil.” Few were willing to suggest that it was a tragedy with its roots in the worst parts of childhood: bullying, alienation, loneliness. Though I never thought about bringing a gun to school when I was in junior high, the distance between the hatred and mistrust I felt for many of my classmates and what happened at Columbine is uncomfortably close. I turned my anger inward into self-loathing, depression, and anxiety. And I still deal with that today.

If we can practice empathy towards those of us who would do us great harm, can’t we do it for someone who chose a different technology stack than our own? Or someone who wrote an unhelpful bug report? Or someone who made a joke in poor taste? I think we can, and we should. Not to allow it to continue, but rather to prevent it from happening again.

I think most people want to be empathetic. They usually just don’t know how -- due to their upbringing, experiences, or personal struggles. They may be too scared or angry to get there, or they may just have never considered an alternate perspective.

Empathy means considering possibilities we may not have ever allowed for. I had never considered why I wouldn’t want to park my car next to a windowless van in a parking lot until my wife explained it to me. Given that women very rarely can let their guard down entirely in public for fear of assault, it makes a lot of sense. But I almost never have to deal with that, so it didn’t even occur to me.

My talks about mental illness are aimed in part at those who aren’t living with those conditions, so that their empathy for us is increased. Empathy allows them to learn how to help us and cope with us in a productive way. I could give a talk that aggressively rails against people who don’t understand us and make our lives harder, but I don’t think that’s going to help us.

Empathy empowers us to more productively interact with another individual or group, even when they may be at odds with our own beliefs. If we don’t understand their reasons and motivations, it’s very difficult to find any common ground and move forward productively.

Because our ability to empathize is limited by our experiences and upbringing, it’s very important to ask questions before assuming reason and intent. Not only does it allow you to empathize more, it almost always makes the other person less likely to respond in a hostile manner when you express disagreement. People who feel valued, respected and understood are more likely to be empathetic towards you. That’s also why using aggressive language or tactics should be a last resort – they more often than not close minds than open them, and repeatedly using them makes it increasingly harder for others to feel empathy towards you.

Practicing empathy with those who don’t seem to be empathetic towards us is extremely difficult, especially when we’re scared or angry. Those emotions are not wrong, but they often make it harder for ourselves to be happy, and interfere with our ability to empathize and affect change.

If we allow our fear and our anger to dictate our language and behavior, it makes it much harder for others to be empathetic to us. As I said above, I think most people want to be empathetic, but don’t know how. Aggressive language is very unlikely to change that. It’s far more likely to confirm their fears and justify their lack of empathy towards us.

Medium matters. Some mediums are especially poor for expressing empathy and making sure two parties understand each other. Twitter and other short form mediums make it difficult to utilize empathy, particularly when dealing with complex problems. Our vocabulary matters. Our nonverbal communication matters. They all make it more likely we’ll understand one another, and less likely that concern or criticism triggers fear or anger.

Practicing empathy is a lifelong process. It’s challenging, and I fail at it a lot. My fear and my anger often get the better of me. But, I am convinced that this is my strongest, most important attribute. It allows me to be more supportive of the people I encounter. It helps me affect change to move my community and our culture in a positive direction. And, it is the key to my own happiness.

If you'd like to talk to me further about this post, please contact me via email. I'd be happy to get on Skype or a Google Hangout to hear what you have to say and exchange ideas. Thanks!

Special thanks to the folks I shared this with early on for their suggestions and edits.

  1. Appreciated when warranted, at least. Depending on the situation, it can be interpreted as condescension.↩︎

  2. From a purely practical standpoint, our ability to empathize means we know better why someone behaves they way they do, and can anticipate how they are likely to react. Robert McNamara talks about this in the documentary The Fog of War: how they were able to empathize with Kruschev to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how their inability to empathize with the Chinese led to deeper US involvement in the Vietnam War. Roman Krzanic talks about this in further detail. The author has written a lot of other good stuff on empathy for social change.↩︎