Search this site
Other stuff

All banner artwork by Brady Johnson, college student and (semi-) starving artist.

My latest books:


        Available now

       Available Now

Available now 

My book Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part is now available as a free download at Lulu.

 The Blue Skunk Page on Facebook


EdTech Update




« AASL is coming right up! | Main | Don't be so grandiose »

7 myths about empathy

Not just logic, but also EMPATHY. “What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others. Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind

I'm not quite sure why I did it, but I volunteered to speak about empathy at the Global Education Conference coming up in a couple weeks. So I spent some time this weekend trying to learn a little more about the topic. I've been interested in empathy as a possibly teachable/developable skill since reading Pink's A Whole New Mind book some years ago and thinking about how reading builds empathetic understandings.

What surprised me in my research, however, was not learning what empathy is - but what it is not. In trying to synthesize some things, here are a few "myths of empathy": 

  1. Empathy is a value. Jonathan Aberman states that is a tool, like reading, writing or computer literacy, not a value. Sounds harsh, but empathy is not always used in positive ways. One can use empathy to manipulate!
  2. Empathy is a weakness - it's is the same as being a pushover. Far from it. Those who have learned to understand the feelings, motivations and others actually have a tremendous advantage in any relationship. (Think about how knowing what buttons to push could make your brother or sister really angry!)
  3. Empathy comes in only one flavor. Yes there is the emotional, touchy-feely side of empathy, but there is also cognitive empathy. (Some would add compassionate empathy as well.)
  4. Empathy means sharing others values - not disagreeing with them. Not at all. One can understand another's values, point-of view, and respect their conclusions, but not agree with them. You can be empathetic and try to persuade others to change their minds.
  5. Empathy is a natural attribute - you have it or you don't. Many writers, including Art Costa in his Habits of Mind, combine empathy and listening as interdependent skills. If we can help people become better listeners, it follows that we can help people be more empathetic. There are many activities (another area I am still reseaching) designed to build empathic skills.
  6. Empathy should be an attribute of followers, rather than leaders. In "Habit 5 - Seek first to understand"- of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,  Stephen Covey writes, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Highly effective people, especially leaders, actually listen - in order to lead more effectively. 
  7. Empathy is only necessary when trying to understand what others are saying. If one wants to "sell" others on an idea, a project, or a value, one must understand that the WIIFM (What's In It For Me) criteria that has to be met to make the sale. And one has to understand other's needs in order to offer a meaningful WIIFM argument. Pink in his book To Sell Is Human, calls this "perspective-taking" and is "an essential quality in moving others today."

Like many of you I'm sure, I believe empathy has intrinsic value. It makes us better human beings, adds richness to our lives, and simply makes the world a better place in which to live. But education has become wholly oriented toward vocational/academic training. So real educators must again revert to subversiveness, assuring parents and politicials that empathy is a "business skill" - a "21st century skill - a "leadership" skill.

If that's what it takes, so be it.

So what myths have you discovered about empathy?


Links to some really interesting articles and resources can be found on my workshop page here. I'll keep curating.

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (5)

Maybe this is a tie-in with #7 in your list. I've had interesting thoughts about empathy lately. I think there can be a bit of a NIMBY effect. In other words, I'm happy to care for and about others and attempt to understand their challenges, as long as it doesn't affect my life, my view or my property value. Hmmm ...

I look forward to meeting you on Wednesday at AASL!

November 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Sutton

Hi Megan,

Wow. Interesting. If empathy changes our thoughts, beliefs or actions, how are our lives not changed?


November 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Student empathy is key to learning from another person, especially if that person loves his/her subject matter. Seeing something complicated from another's point of view can facilitate powerful learning. And the teacher's role includes inviting/facilitating an empathetic response from the student by offering a safe level of personal vulnerability.

November 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill Storm

I agree. Any examples of when you've seen this happen?


November 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Excellent work, Doug. I greatly enjoyed both Bill Storm's response to your work, and when I traced back to your Seven Myths I was delighted. You both evoke material written long ago by Martin Buber on the role of dialogue in Education. Just fine stuff! by both you and your respondent!


November 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichard D Stanton, PhD

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>