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The Subtle Science of Empathy

In the 1720s, Benjamin Franklin found himself stranded in London after a prospective business partner in Philadelphia turned out to be all talk and no follow-through. Franklin was in his late teens and already a skilled printer. He had no issue finding employment in a successful print shop. There, he was faced with a dilemma that taught him a valuable lesson.

The workers in the shop had a tradition of taking five breaks a day to drink a pint of beer, believing that it kept them loose and helped them do their best work. The group would pool their money to purchase their beer, but Franklin, who disliked drinking during working hours, refused to contribute to the fund. Why should he pay into a habit that he not only didn’t engage in, but believed to be counterproductive? It was foolish on its face.

His coworkers politely acquiesced and let the matter go.

However, Franklin soon found himself to blame for a series of mistakes in his work. Type errors were found in print jobs, causing misprints and delaying production. Of course, Franklin wasn’t at fault for the mistakes, but it was still his responsibility. These issues continued for some time, and he thought that he might soon be fired if they didn’t stop.

Once he realized that he wasn’t actually making the mistakes, instead being sabotaged by his colleagues, he realized that they hadn’t accepted his decision. Instead, he realized that his colleagues saw his refusal to pay into the beer fund as a lack of camaraderie. They thought that because Franklin refused to conform to the group dynamic, he saw himself as better than his coworkers. Franklin realized he needed to do something to resolve the situation. Once he relented and began to contribute to the beer fund, the constant mistakes ceased. (Story from Masteryby Robert Greene).

The key lesson that Benjamin Franklin learned?


It’s the capacity to comprehend and connect with the emotions of others. It’s about stepping into someone else’s shoes, grasping their viewpoint. For some, it seems to come naturally. But for many of us, empathy is no simple feat, requiring focus and practice. But, when mastered, empathy can shake up our personal and professional relationships for the better.

In today’s fast-paced world, we’re often separated from each other by barriers that transcend the physical. The ability to empathize with another person, to step into their shoes and view life from their perspective, is more out of reach than ever. It’s also never been more important. Empathy can aid us in constructing stronger relationships, improve our communication skills and resolve conflicts, and boost our personal and professional growth. Whether we’re surrounded by friends, family, colleagues, opponents, or total strangers, empathy is a powerful tool that can revolutionize the way we interact with others and the world.

What does empathy look like?

Empathy involves actively listening and responding to the emotions of others. It means taking the time to understand their perspectives, to appreciate their feelings, and to show genuine concern for their well-being. When we exhibit empathy, we are able to connect with others in a meaningful way, and get that “special something” that so often seems to be missing.

Active listening is a key component of empathy. This involves paying attention to what others are saying, not just to their words but also to their tone of voice and body language. When we listen actively, we are able to pick up on the emotions behind what someone is saying. We understand not just the what, but the why.

Understanding and appreciating the perspectives of others is another important aspect of empathy. This means taking the time to see things from their point of view, to understand their motivations and desires, and to appreciate their unique experiences and challenges. By doing so, we are able to build stronger relationships and resolve conflicts more effectively.

What does absence of empathy look like?

The absence of empathy is characterized by ignorance of and indifference to the emotions of others. When someone lacks empathy, they are unable to understand or connect with the feelings of others.

People who lack empathy may struggle to pick up on the emotions behind what someone is saying, and they may inadvertently respond in a way that is insensitive or dismissive. This can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and can undermine the strength of relationships. The negative reactions an unempathetic person elicits from those they interact with often seem to come out of nowhere, and the offender may have no idea what they did to cause it.

In some cases, people may use empathy as a tool for manipulation or control, without genuine concern for the other person. For example, they may pretend to understand or care about someone’s feelings in order to gain their trust. This type of behavior is not true empathy, and it can have a negative impact on relationships and trust.

However, empathy itself IS a tool to be used. Like a hammer can be used to build a house or to destroy one, it’s the intention of the user that matters.

Empathy opens up an entire spectrum of new information beyond what a person says or does.
Empathy opens up an entire spectrum of new information beyond what a person says or does.

How to use empathy responsibly

Let’s get back to Benjamin Franklin for a moment.

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin decided it was time to enter the political arena. He was unanimously voted into an influential position in Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature. However, when his term was up for renewal, he suddenly faced very outspoken opposition from a new member of the legislature, Isaac Norris.

The candidate Norris supported eventually lost. Though Franklin had kept his position, he saw the danger that Norris presented. Isaac Norris was an influential businessman and held a significant degree of public influence. Franklin couldn’t become openly hostile towards him, as that would confirm, in Norris’ mind, all the negative opinions he had formed about Franklin. Nor could he ignore Norris entirely, as that would arouse his ire even further.

Franklin set to work analyzing his opponent. Gathering information from those who knew Norris, observing Norris’ behavior in public, thinking at great length to see the world from his opponent’s perspective. Ultimately, Franklin learned that Norris was a very emotional individual. Further, he discovered that Norris was well-read, and had an impressive personal library that included many rare volumes.

Upon learning this, Franklin wrote Norris a note, asking humbly if he might be allowed to borrow a specific title. Apparently, Norris was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected request, and sent the book over without delay.

As promised, Benjamin Franklin took great care of the book and returned it in the time he agreed. Being an emotional person, Norris was suddenly confronted with information that clearly went against his preconceived notions of Benjamin Franklin’s character. Apparently, Franklin conducted himself in an honest and forthright manner, remained true to his word, and shared a common interest with Norris.

Benjamin Franklin clearly manipulated Norris’ emotional nature, and used his knowledge to sway his opinion from wrath to warmth. However, the two became good friends and allies, personally and politically, until their careers were over.

If Benjamin Franklin had executed this maneuver only to achieve his goals, it would have been manipulative and morally questionable at best. However, Franklin had a genuine interest in Isaac Norris, and was grateful to have earned the man’s friendship. His interests were motivated by personal need, but his interest in Norris was truthful and authentic.

How to cultivate empathy

Alright, let’s dive in. Empathy is a muscle—you can grow it by working it and feeding it the right nutrients. Here’s how to cultivate the empathy you need to not only take your career and relationships to the next level, but to find the deep life satisfaction we all crave.

Practice deep listening

You’ve heard this referred to by another name: ‘active listening.’ But you’ve probably heard it so many times that you’ve stopped actively listening to it. It’s a simple concept, but I can guarantee that you’re not giving it the attention it deserves, and you’re not getting out of it what you could be.

Deep listening is simple: pay attention, people! Listen to what others are saying, yes. But don’t try to relate what they’re saying to yourself. Relate what they’re saying to THEM. Watch their face, their body language, how they hold their eyes. Try to understand the emotions behind their words.

Ask questions about things you don’t understand, and encourage them to share more about the “why” behind their words. Not only will this show that you’re interested and genuinely care, but it will help you to understand the person in front of you and your role in their life.

Accept idiocy as inevitable

People behaving in stupid or irrational ways is an unavoidable fact of life. No matter how much we try to justify others’ behavior, there will always be those moments where someone says or does something that seems senseless. However, you are guilty of this yourself. We all are, and we all take turns.

Once you accept your own asinine behavior as a normal (if unfortunate) part of life, it becomes much easier to deal with asinine behavior in others. When you stop expecting everyone to always behave in a rational manner, you reduce your stress and frustration, and are better equipped to emotionally detach from uncomfortable or frustrating situations as they arise.

Seek out diverse perspectives

Empathy is all about understanding different points of view. So, it’s time to broaden your horizons and seek out other perspectives. Talk to people from different backgrounds, cultures, and walks of life. The degree to which you do this depends on your means, your time, and your comfort level with discomfort. If possible, I recommend slow travel as a method to gain these diverse perspectives.

If that’s not possible for the moment, there are things you can do right now to make it happen. Read books written on subjects you don’t know about, or even better, by people you disagree with. True stupidity is exceedingly rare, though not as rare as true evil. People are very different, and the overwhelming majority of perspectives have validity to them.

If you are so entrenched in your opinion that you can’t see the validity of your opponents’ perspective, you’re in a position of weakness. Taking steps to understand your opponent is not a sign of weakness, and if your own beliefs are firmly rooted in logic, respecting conflicting beliefs won’t weaken your resolve. But it will give you the capacity to see flaws in your opponents’ defenses that they might not see themselves. And it will also show you flaws in your own defenses that you’re not aware of.

Next, we’ll discuss a thought exercise to successfully step into someone’s brain and see the world as they see it.

Practice perspective-taking

Think yourself into someone else’s mind. Consciously work to understand their experiences, motivations, and emotions. This process, called “perspective taking,” will help you build stronger relationships and resolve conflicts more effectively.

  1. Identify the situation or relationship where you feel there may be a difference in perspective. If it’s a situation where you feel your differences transcend words and even thoughts, pick one thing to focus on first.
  2. Ask yourself: “What might this person be feeling or thinking in this situation?” Detach yourself from your own emotions entirely. If you find yourself answering the question with insults or invective, you’re not there yet.
  3. Consider their background, experiences, values, and motivations. Imagine what life was like for this person growing up. Picture what might have happened to them to give them their perspective.
  4. Recognize that you are capable of the same perspective and actions, however reprehensible. It’s important to acknowledge that you, just like everyone else, have a great capacity for not only ignorance, but malevolence. Imagine what would have had to transpire in your past for you to share their perspective.
  5. Finally, now that you’ve reframed the situation from their perspective, ask yourself: What does this person hope to gain from their perspective or actions? What physical or psychological rewards are to be gained, or what physical or psychological pains are to be avoided?

A word of warning: there’s a colloquialism that describes the results that come about when you “assume,” and there’s validity to that. However, a big part of the scientific method is creating theories based on observations. There’s nothing wrong with establishing your own theories about another person’s perspective.

However, the mistake is in assuming that your theories are correct. If you plan to immediately take action based on your theories, you should expect things to go wrong in every way imaginable. Test your theories before you act on them, and if you can, talk to the person about their perspective. Ask questions, and actually give a damn about their feelings. Then, use your new knowledge to respond in a way that shows you understand and appreciate their perspective. (This is what Benjamin Franklin did when he asked to borrow the book from Isaac Norris).

Reflect on your own emotions

Finally, take time to intentionally reflect on your own emotions and to understand why you feel, think, and behave the way you do. This will help you become more in tune with your own feelings and the feelings of others.

Self-understanding is critical for the development of empathy. When we take the time to reflect on our own emotions, we gain a deeper understanding of our own thoughts and feelings, and naturally become more attuned to the emotions of others. By understanding our own emotions, we can better recognize and respond to the emotions of others, and develop more meaningful relationships.

Reflection allows us to identify our own biases, tendencies, and triggers, and to gain a deeper understanding of our own emotional responses. This can help us to regulate our emotions, to respond more effectively in difficult situations, and to better understand the motivations and emotions of others.

Five steps to cultivating empathy

So, there you have it. Empathy is an essential component of strong personal and professional relationships, yes—but it’s also a foundational component of living a life worth living. Empathy allows us to understand and connect with the emotions of others, and to build stronger, more meaningful relationships.

Empathy is a muscle that can be exercised and grown. This is done through deep listening, seeking out diverse perspectives, perspective-taking, and developing deep self-understanding.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that other people don’t have to agree with us. Other people are every bit as important as you and me, and they all have the same right to live and make colossal mistakes—just like you and me.

We should avoid manipulating them solely for the advancement of our own interests. Instead, we should strive to see the world from their perspective and to understand their experiences, motivations, and emotions. By doing so, we can build stronger, more meaningful relationships, and become more empathetic individuals.

Because all that we have in this endless, empty universe is each other.

—John Kakuk

I'm John Kakuk.

I’m a brand designer, web developer and marketer working with architects, engineers and construction companies. My purpose is to help others achieve the best versions of their businesses and themselves.

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