Two of the more common reasons behind requests for coaching are:

“This person is very smart and technically able, but poor on people skills and general emotional intelligence.”

“This person has great people skills but has difficulty with tough conversations.”

In the first, helping the individual to develop empathy is clearly a prerequisite; in the second, controlling and regulating empathy will require modification.

From the coach’s perspective, the capacity for empathy is a major contributor to coaching success, central as it is to all components of emotional intelligence.

You already know a lot of ‘stuff’ about this magical thing called ‘empathy’, so for this week’s Wellbeing Insights we’ve got something a little different for you.

Courtesy of our friend, colleague and fellow coach, Craigie Macfie, we’re bringing you a special edition ‘psychiatric perspective’ on the key questions we have about empathy:

  1. What is empathy?
  2. Where does it come from?
  3. Is it an evolutionary response?
  4. What parts of our brains are required for empathy?
  5. Why is empathy a good thing?
  6. Why is empathy a bad thing?
  7. How can we develop empathy?

So, buckle in, here comes your neuroscience lesson for the week – it’s hard, but worth it!

Q: Craigie, can you explain what empathy is please?

The usual definition, of course, is ‘the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes’, but a bit more reflection demands that we flesh out that apparently simple idea. A useful, expanded definition is suggested by Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University, who has written widely on autism and other disorders involving diminished empathy. (By the way, he is the cousin of the more famous and perhaps less reputable creator of Ali G and Borat.) His definition is:

‘Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.’ 

(Billy Connolly and Steve Martin, among others probably, have their own views on this – ‘Before you criticise a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticise him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes’)

Q: Where does the ability to identify and respond appropriately come from?

That’s a complex question!  I think it is useful to look at it in three different ways, taking perspectives each from psychology, neuroscience and from evolutionary biology.

Let’s start with psychology.

Baron-Cohen’s definition can be elaborated. Identifying another person’s feeling state involves at least two processes. The first is a kind of automatic resonance or gut-response to the other’s facial, gestural or other non-verbal cues of which we may not be fully aware. We feel something of what the other is feeling.

The second is more conscious. We imagine ourselves in the other’s situation and construct an inner scenario such as ‘This is how I might feel in her situation, but what differences are likely to exist, given her specific circumstances and personality?’

We then have to formulate a tactful response, either by word or gesture. If we stick to ‘experience-near’ phenomena, there is unlikely to be a problem, but often we may perceive more of the other person’s experience than they are ready to face, so caution is advisable.

(A beautiful example comes from the enlightened psychoanalyst, Frieda Fromm-Reichman. One of her patients, a withdrawn and silent young woman, when asked how she was feeling, slowly separated her thumb from her other fingers and held it up. Fromm-Reichmann waited then quietly said ‘that lonely?’)

Q: That’s a wonderful story. Can we move on to the tougher neuroscience bit now?


I find the contribution of neuroscience to understanding the physiology of empathy intrinsically interesting and it adds a bit of scientific colour to the story! It helps anchor our thinking in observables, but I don’t think we need go into too much detail.

Q: Just as well!

Well, here it is in a nutshell.

It is useful to take both a ‘top-down’ view and a ‘bottom-up’ view. The ‘top-down’ view is mediated by the more recently developed parts of the brain, the cerebral hemispheres, which are responsible for the cognitive elements of judgement and language crucial to the empathic response.

The ‘bottom-up’ view is less conscious and is based on the more primitive structures in the brain stem that regulate bodily processes and emotions.

Q: Maybe you could expand on that a little?


In the ‘top-down’ scenario, functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) and clinical studies of brain lesions have clarified which areas of the cerebral hemispheres are necessary for the various elements of the empathic process. Emotional awareness and understanding, for example, require the integrity of different parts of the frontal lobes and formulating this understanding necessarily involves the language centres of the brain.

In the ‘bottom-up’ perspective, the gut-feel response is mediated by the more primitive, older structures of our brains (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the autonomic nervous system and other neuro-endocrine connections if you really want to know ?) and has an evolutionary significance.

Here is a summary table for anyone interested in a little more detail:

Component of empathy Relevant brain area / process
Affective arousal (sharing)        Based on subcortical circuits, including the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex
Emotion understanding Emotional awareness draws on the circuits of the anterior insula which integrates homeostatic conditions with the sensory and social environment
Self-regulation The higher control of judgement basically involves elements of the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex and their wider connections with the amygdala and other brain areas.

Decety, 2011

Q: And there is also a significant evolutionary component in empathy?

It certainly seems that empathy confers some evolutionary advantage, especially for social animals.

When we look at very young children (and in many higher mammalian species too), there is evidence of a very early capacity to respond to the feeling states of others, an ability which would be crucial for social interaction and the survival of the tribe.

Our emotional circuitry includes the oldest part of our brain (the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex and other portions of the brain commonly known as the limbic system) and presumably it is this that has been selected for our early social adaptation. It is also probable that, elsewhere throughout the brain, there exist a number of neuronal circuits, so-called ‘mirror neurones’, which are shared by other higher mammals and which specifically respond to emotional inputs from other individuals.

Q: Take us back into the workplace, why is empathy a good thing?

There are 5 main reasons:

  1. Empathy promotes trust – If someone feels understood, they are likely to feel more trusting and it has been shown that an environment of trust promotes the expression of feelings and attitudes that have been blocked through fear of shame, criticism or retaliation
  2. Empathy facilitates personal responsibility – Both the coaching leader and the person being coached develop a more refined sense of mutual capabilities. Delegation and empowerment are therefore improved, and talent is more clearly identified and rewarded
  3. Empathy facilitates influencing – When people feel that their point of view has been considered they are more likely to accept direction from another
  4. Empathy encourages learning – Learning which is threatening to the self (e.g., new attitudes or perspectives) are more easily assimilated when external threats are at a minimum; learning proceeds faster when the threat to the self is low and the threat to the self is diminished when one feels understood
  5. Empathy allows a leader to be directive when necessary without unnecessary resistance

Q: And is there ever a time when having too much empathy can be a bad thing?

Yes, that’s often the underlying issue in conflict avoidance or in the coaching scenario where leaders aren’t having the tough conversations.

It’s impossible to make decisions in life that do not somehow impact negatively on other people. Leaders in commerce, the military and politics make decisions every day that can be paralysed if an empathic understanding plays too significant a part in the decision-making process.

Leaders must balance understanding of another individual’s feelings with their other imperatives and the ruthlessness required of some leadership decisions may be compromised unless the empathic understanding is modified.

A capacity for empathy is not necessarily limited to benign interactions. Having psychopathic, Machiavellian or narcissistic personality traits does not preclude deep empathic capability – torturers, conmen, and manipulative salespersons, among others, are able to use their empathic skills to devastating effect on others.

Q: Lastly Craigie, what’s your best advice on how to go about developing empathy for those deemed ‘lacking’ in their emotional intelligence?

It’s tricky, because as I’ve implied, our capacity for empathy may be largely inborn. However, the following suggestions are intuitively appealing and there is some evidence that empathic capability can be enhanced:

  1. Read widely – novels, poems, plays, not just technical or business articles
  2. Use your reading to collect useful words or phrases that help communicate the subtle nuances of experience. These will add to the furniture of your mind and become available naturally when needed
  3. Practice observation of people in public places – try to identify anxiety, sadness, anger through facial expressions and bodily gestures
  4. Instead of re-checking your mobile phone at every spare minute, try a thought experiment to find as many words as you can that convey the various nuances of feeling states such as anger, shame, frustration
  5. Watch infants at play and imagine what is going through their minds

The real key to developing empathy is to develop self-awareness. A High-Performance Leadership course at Cranfield University had the tagline ‘To lead people, it is important to understand people; to understand people, it is important to understand yourself.’

Perhaps Socrates was right!



‘The Conversation’ – a free, independent, not-for-profit media outlet based on providing ‘Academic rigour; journalistic flair’. Back issues are available and there are three useful articles on empathy. A very useful source in this age of fake news.

Decety, J. (2011) Dissecting the Neural Mechanisms Mediating Empathy

Emotion Review Vol.3, No.1 92- 108

Baron-Cohen, S. (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy – a new theory of human    cruelty

Allen Lane, Penguin, London