Demonstrating Empathy: How it Really Works

Jun 3, 2021

There is a short story, often misattributed to Hemingway, that generates strong reactions in some readers with just six words:

For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

A famous science fiction writer and Hemingway acquaintance later said that he could not think of this story without crying – even after many years!

The way in which a person goes from those six simple words to tears involves active participation with the story.  A reader uses what they know about life and human behavior to imagine why the shoes were never worn.  In the early- and mid-20th century when infant mortality was higher in almost every country, it was easy to hypothesize that the child had died, making this a tragic story of loss.

This example illustrates two key elements of empathy — active listening and participation in making meaning of what you see or hear.  Being empathetic involves the “imaginative transposing” of yourself into how the others think, feel and act.

Now fast forward to today, where one day this month there were 5,774 pairs of size 4 pre-owned baby shoes for sale on ebay (US), including these:


Maybe it’s the exclamation points or maybe it’s what we know about the economy and side hustles or about fast fashion or sneakerheads, but today, there are new meanings that can be imagined when reading “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”  

This brings us to another element of empathy – accuracy.  To be empathetic, we need to accurately transpose ourselves into how another person thinks, feels and acts.  Our capacity for empathy depends not only on our ability to suspend judgment and listen actively, but also on the variety of experiences and human behavior to which we have been exposed. It’s hard to imagine multiple meanings of another person’s story if we aren’t aware of range of human behavior and life circumstances.   

For example, would it surprise you to know that there are an estimated 300 million people worldwide who cannot afford shoes? Or that this includes 20 million children in sub-Saharan Africa who have no shoes to protect their feet from extremely hot soil temperatures? 

Mona Purdy, who founded Share Your Soles in 1999, said she participated in a road race in Guatemala and was surprised to see children putting tar on their feet so they could run on the rocky ground alongside the runners.  “It blew my mind.  I didn’t know kids didn’t have shoes anywhere,” she once said. 

Blake Mycoskoe, who in 2006 founded Shoes for a Better Tomorrow later shortened to TOMS, had a similar reaction when he spent a few days working alongside someone who was distributing shoes to children in Argentina.  “It dramatically heightened my awareness.  Yes, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that poor children around the world often went barefoot, but now, for the first time, I saw the real effects of being shoeless: the blisters, the sores, the infections.  I wanted to do something.  But what?” 

Both Purdy and Mycoskoe let themselves feel distressed by what others were experiencing.  They went beyond perspective-taking to feel a degree of heartache about what others were experiencing.   

Allowing yourself to feel distress because someone else is in pain or allowing yourself to feel joy because someone else is happy is the key to true empathy.  Why? Because it’s only when we combine cognitive and emotional empathy that we become capable of an empathic response – a meaningful, compassionate, empathic response that creates or strengthens the relationship between you and the other person. 

Providing an empathic response to a person in distress doesn’t mean you have to agree with their opinions.  Nor does it mean that you have to feel exactly what they are feeling or let their feelings overwhelm yours.  Minimally, it means that you strive to respond in a way that does not dismiss or subtract from the other person’s experience.  Optimally, it means that you respond in ways that help the other person get beyond and below the surface of what they are expressing so that both of you come out with a deeper understanding of the experience. 

Empathy at its best is like a compassionate “root cause” hearts and minds dialogue – one that leads to an appropriate humane response and to meaningful human connection. 

How to Lead with Empathy 

  • In the Moment: 

a. Be an active listener and engage with what the other person is saying 

b. Suspend judgment and imagine how the other person thinks, feels or acts in their situation 

c. Let yourself feel emotions like distress or joy with what you are hearing or seeing 

d. Provide a compassionate response 

  • Ongoing: 

e. Expose yourself to multiple viewpoints  

f. Check your assumptions by asking others how they think and feel about certain situations 

g. Let the compassion you develop lead you to additional empathetic responses 

Stay tuned for part two of these blog series: “How Empathy Fuels Innovation and Business Results”

Written By

Renee Smith

Renee Smith

Chief Research Officer

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