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The Essentials of Empathy

  • Published
  • By Prof. Sara Kitsch



Empathy is an important piece of the human condition. It is linked to prosocial behaviors and moral development and is negatively correlated with aggression.[1] In popular culture, we see the value in empathizing with others in life and leadership. Arthur Brooks, writing in the Atlantic, notes that empathizing can provide real relief to others who are suffering.[2] Kara Dennison, in Forbes, discusses the importance of empathy in preserving workplace stability and perhaps more importantly in earning the trust of followers.[3] Many familiar with Emotional Intelligence (EQ/EI) and the work of Daniel Goleman, co-author of Primal Leadership, might feel affirmed to know that empathy is linked to compassion and self-awareness, both of which are crucial in fostering EQ/EI.[4]

Today, empathy is also talked about in military settings, despite being a semi-uncomfortable fit. As Chaplain John McDougall writes, the military must understand and apply empathy to build more cohesive teams and make smart decisions in novel environments.[5] Lt Col Kevin Cutright, a professor at West Point, argues that although empathy “sits uneasily in military culture,” in part because we struggle to understand what it is, it is essential to helping soldiers and leaders alike acquire various types of knowledge when it comes to other cultures and even war. Cutright warns that is not enough to simply understand inanimate elements like terrain, weather, and weapons; we also must invest in knowing about the human element.[6] Indeed, Lt Gen H.R. McMaster, national security adviser to President Trump from 2017-2018, advocates that US foreign policy is flawed due to our own “strategic narcissism” that perpetuates an overly U.S.-centric view of the world. McMaster advocates for what he calls “strategic empathy” on a global stage as a way to deliberately understand how the world looks at others, and how that perception influences the policies and actions of other countries and foreign actors.[7]  

In sum, empathy is important. What remains up for debate is: what is exactly is empathy? How is it discussed academically? More importantly, how should those of us working in the Profession of Arms understand and facilitate our empathy skills and avoid the associated pitfalls on a day-to-day basis before we consider applying it to the strategic level? That is the central question I intend to address in the remainder of this essay. To do so, I will summarize five considerations of empathy that I have distilled from both academic and popular culture literature. In doing so, I will make an argument for what empathy is, what it isn’t, and most significantly, how to start sharpening your empathy skills today. 

Five Considerations of Empathy in the Profession of Arms and Beyond

Empathy is emotional perspective-taking. Empathy is often described as “putting yourself in another’s shoes.” On a basic level, to empathize is to take the perspective of another, but also be willing to modify your behavior as a result of that exercise.[8] More formally, empathy can be thought of as a social and emotional skill (not a trait!) upon which we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support by understanding the needs of others.[9] To complexify this a bit further, to truly empathize you must attempt to “experience” what another is feeling—not just acknowledge that people feel a variety of emotions. Frederique De Vignemont and Tania Singer describe experience as a “felt” emotional state that is similar to another’s that comes from imagining what another is feeling.[10]While empathizing, you might find yourself imagining: “What feelings or sensations is this individual experiencing? Where might those feelings come from?” and then attempting to put yourself in that mindset. My point here is that it is not enough to say “yes, Bob is feeling sad, I recognize that;” to empathize you have to attempt to feel Bob’s sadness and consider why he is feeling that way. As Joes Smith so eloquently reminds us, empathy is not a propositional or theoretical understanding that the other feels or thinks in a certain way, but an experiential understanding of another’s feelings or thoughts.[11]

Empathy is cognitive and affective. Empathy as a process involves both heart and head—or in more scientific terms it is both “affective” (emotional) and “cognitive” (thinking).  More specifically, empathy is made up of both higher and lower empathy: that is raw sensory input (feeling what another feels) plus cognitive processing (understanding why they feel that).[12] So-called “lower-level” empathy is often considered more subconscious, automatic, and reveals ‘surface’ mental states of emotion and immediate intentions; this aspect might be due in part to mirror neurons, which can cause us to respond when we witness a particular action as if we’ve performed it ourselves.[13] For example, if you’ve ever watched a small child fall off a bike and winced or shivered as they revealed their scraped hands and knees, you’ve experienced lower-level empathy. Yet Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie maintain that empathy needs to be more than an automatic and shallow understanding of another’s momentary mental states. Thus, higher-level empathy is seen as conscious, voluntary, and revealing of deeper mental states, including broad intentions or the meaning behind the behavior.[14] This is where simulation theory and narrative approaches to empathy flourish, helping us to understand how conscious and voluntary behaviors aimed at understanding are also at play when we empathize. Going back to the scraped knees: you might understand the child who fell is in physical pain but perhaps you can also sense and make sense of the fact that they are frightened by the fall as well. As such, you decide they need some type of physical attention (washing and band-aiding their hands or knees) but also a calming presence (and perhaps a hug) that reassures them it will be okay. Obviously, we could change the particulars of this hypothetical situation, but the foundation remains the same: empathy is both feeling what another feels as well as responding appropriately based on your understanding of those feelings. This attempt toward understanding is what moves us from lower to higher levels of empathy.

Empathy requires recognition that those feelings aren’t your own. As Arnaud Carré and colleagues point out: “The empathic response requires . . . the ability to share and replicate other people’s emotional states while simultaneously being aware that these emotions are not one’s own.”[15] This might seem like a small or obvious notion, but it is what separates empathy from “sympathy.” We can think of empathy as a more complex or disciplined cousin of sympathy. To practice empathy is not to “feel bad” or “feel happy” for someone it is to feel with someone and then respond accordingly. To formulate that response component, we must remain in control of our emotions and recognize that whatever the other person is feeling (ranging from pure joy to utter desperation to anything in between) those feelings are not our feelings. Thus, while empathizing with others we must be continually aware that although empathy asks us to take the emotional perspective of another, it is just that—perspective taking. If we get too involved in someone else’s emotions, and feel too deeply with them to a point where those feelings become indistinguishable from our own emotional state, we are unable to take that next step and respond appropriately. Unlike sympathy, in empathy “the self is the vehicle for understanding, and it never loses its own identity.”[16] This is why the “heart and head” balance in consideration two is essential. I would be remiss to point out that this is difficult! It takes practice. It requires mindfulness. It is also not always possible; we cannot empathize with everyone in every situation. 

Empathy can be learned. The emotional (affective) side of empathy can, in some cases, be automatic. The knee scrape mentioned earlier, or perhaps the contagious joy felt when someone receives excellent news, can spread without a lot of intentional thought. But empathy is not always our instinctive response. In fact, as Professor of Psychology Jamil Zaki notes, we often do the opposite; that is, we can take pleasure in the suffering of others or hope for very different emotional outcomes.[17] If you have ever been driving down a busy freeway, shaking your head angrily at how others are driving, perhaps even hoping law enforcement might be watching them as well, you can understand how easy it is to avoid empathizing. This is why empathy is best categorized (and supported in the literature) as a motivated phenomenon. That is, sometimes we are motivated to empathize with others but other times, we are motivated to avoid empathizing. Thus, to practice empathy equitably and intentionally we must be thinking about it; we must attune our skills. Additionally, the response component of empathy, that is, interpreting the feelings you “catch” from another, is a learned process. Studies in animals, infants, and adults all suggest our response to even more automatic “emotional contagions” is developed through social interaction. These responses can be enhanced, redirected, and even broken through social training.[18] This is good news, because like leadership, empathetic individuals are not born, they are made; there is room for us all to continually improve our relationship and practice of empathy. Which leads to my final argument.

Empathy is a continuum of understanding. The last consideration I want to establish about empathy is that it is not a zero-sum game. The choice is not “empathize or do not empathize,” which is why a continuum is well suited to describe our range and capacity to empathize. The continuum ranges from “difficult” to “easy” (with lots of shades of gray in between). How easy or difficult it is to empathize depends on how familiar and/or how many shared life characteristics or experiences you have with that individual or group (e.g. race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious or political affiliation, the list goes on…). One thing I often hear while facilitating workshops on empathy is: “Oh, I could not possibly understand or put myself in the shoes of (insert person or group here); we’re just too different” or “I have never gone through that situation, so I could never imagine what it is like.” These reactions make sense. Empathizing with someone who is very different from yourself or without shared life experiences can be extremely difficult. Indeed, research shows us that the more familiar you are with someone, the better your brain can predict what they will think, feel, or do. When people are less familiar to us, it is harder to empathize; but it is not impossible. You might have to learn more about that individual or group and this requires more energy and effort. This gap, in part, helps to explain why we often fail to empathize with unlike others: it is uncomfortable and (biologically) costs us to try and understand why someone thinks/feels/acts differently than we do. As Lisa Feldman Barrett writes: “It’s metabolically costly for our brains to deal with things that are hard to predict.”[19] But again, it is not impossible, nor does it mean we cannot actively try and move upward along the continuum with those who are unlike ourselves.[20] How? Well, the possibilities are wide and contextual, and up for debate—but three ideas based in current literature to get started with include: 

  1. Doing research: For example: reading a (reputable) news article or nonfiction book about a historical context you are unfamiliar with, watching a movie or documentary about an event or individual, or taking a specific course.[21]
  2. Engaging in perspective-taking: Setting aside dedicated time to think about how it might feel to live from the position of another.[22]
  3. Practicing equanimity: Approaching a situation with a willingness to be wrong; maintaining calm in the face of defensive or embarrassed feelings when listening or talking with unlike others.[23]

Perhaps these suggestions seem simple, but they are all excellent starting points supported in the research on teaching empathy. Importantly, they are not a “one size fits all” and can be adjusted based on who you are trying to move up on the continuum towards. As a final note, I would offer that even contemplating the list and thinking about how it makes you feel (that is, how would it feel to learn more about someone you disagree with? What does five minutes of reflective space look like for you? Or when was the last time you approached a conversation with equanimity) is a good starting point for practicing empathy.    


Empathy is a crucial human skill. It is also a strategic skill that can serve those of us working in the Profession of Arms. I have used this essay to argue that we should understand empathy as an activity in perspective taking. One that requires a balance of emotion and cognition and perhaps most importantly, considers our personal ability and limits to remove our own feelings from the exercise. Because empathy can be learned and attuned, I urge us to move forward with an understanding of empathy as a continuum to move up instead of some categorical activity we reserve for some but not others. Indeed, if we are to keep our sights on maintaining lasting peace, empathy becomes a key asset, allowing us to adapt to novel circumstances in our ever-changing strategic environments,[24] and curating the type of flexibility that has become the hallmark of good leadership in the Profession of Arms.  

Sara R. Kitsch, PhD 
Dr. Kitsch is an Assistant Professor of Leadership at the Leadership and Innovation Institute at Air University and Co-Director of Faculty Development for the Leader Development Course for Squadron Command (LDC). She graduated with a BS from Central Michigan University in Psychology, an MA from Central Michigan University in Communication Studies, and a PhD from Texas A&M University in Communication. She teaches courses at AWC, ACSC, and the Ira C. Eaker Center. Her research interests include rhetoric and public affairs, empathy, women’s studies, and leader development. She is author of multiple academic articles with her research having won awards at National Conventions.


[1.] Christa Boske, Azadeh Osanloo, and Whitney Sherman Newcomb, “Exploring empathy to promote social justice leadership in schools,” Journal of School Leadership, no. 3 (2017): 361-391; Arnaud Carré, Nicholas Stefaniak, Fanny d'Ambrosio, Leila Bensalah, and Chrystel Besche-Richard, “The Basic Empathy Scale in adults (BES-A): factor structure of a revised form,” Psychological Assessment, no. 25 (2013): 679; Jean Decety, “Dissecting the neural Mechanisms Mediating Empathy,” Emotion Review, no. (2011): 92-108.

[2.] Arthur Brooks, “What’s Missing From Empathy,” The Atlantic, September 8, 2022,

[3.] Kara Dennison, “The Importance of Empathy in Leadership: How to Lead with Compassion and Understanding in 2023,” Forbes, February 24, 2023,  

[4.] Daniel Goleman, “What People Still Get Wrong About Emotional Intelligence.” Harvard Business Review. December 22, 2020,

[5.] John McDougall, “Empathic Leadership: Understanding the Human Domain,” Military Review, November-December (2019): 29-34. 

[6.] Kevin Cutright, “The Empathic Solider,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies, no 27 (2019): 265-285. 

[7.] H.R. McMaster, Battlegrounds: The Right to Defend the Free World (New York: Harper, 2020); Ann Scott Tyson, “’Strategic empathy’: H.R. McMaster on Foreign Policy and China,” Christian Science Monitor, September 22, 2020,

[8.] Robert Hogan, “Development of an empathy scale,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, no. 33 (1969): 307.

[9.] Veronica McLaren,  Salome Vanwoerden, and Carla Sharp, “The Basic Empathy Scale: Factor structure and Validity in a Sample of Inpatient Adolescents.” Psychological Assessment, no. 31 (2019): 1208. 

[10.] Frederique De Vignemont, and Tania Singer, “The Empathic Brain: How, When and Why?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, no. 10 (2006): 435-441. 

[11.] Cutright, “The Empathic Solider,” 275.

[12.] Joel Smith, “What is empathy for?” Synthese, no. 194 (2017): 712-713.

[13.] Lea Winerman, “The Mind’s Mirorr,” Monitor on Psychology, no. 36 (2005): 48. 

[14.] Peter Goldie and Amy Coplan, eds., Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). 

[15.] Carré, Stefaniak, d'Ambrosio, Bensalah, & Besche-Richard, “The Basic Empathy Scale,” 679. 

[16.] Lauren Wispé, “The distinction between Sympathy and Empathy: To call forth a Concept, a Word is Needed,” Journal of personality and Social Psychology, no. 50 (1986): 318.

[17.] Jamil Zaki, “Empathy: a motivated account,” Psychological Bulletin, no. 140 (2014): 1608.

[18.] Cecelia Heyes, “Empathy is Not in our Genes,” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, no. 95 (2018): 499-507.

[19.] Lisa Feldman Barrette, “People’s Words and Actions Can Actually Shape Your Brain—A Neuroscientist Explains How,” Ted. November 17, 2020,

[20.] Decety, “Dissecting the neural Mechanisms Mediating Empathy,”  92-108.

[21.] Hope Bell, “Creative Interventions for Teaching Empathy in the Counseling Classroom,” Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, no. 13 (2018): 106-120.

[22.] John Chambers and Mark Davis, “The Role of the Self in Perspective-Taking and Empathy: Ease of Self-Simulation as a Heuristic for Inferring Empathic Feelings,” Social Cognition, no. 30 (2012): 153-180.

[23.] Daniel Siegel, “Mindfulness training and neural integration: Differentiation of Distinct Streams of Awareness and the Cultivation of Well-Being,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, no. 2 (2007). 259-263.

[24.] Cutright, “The Empathic Solider,” 153.

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