Blog: The Empathy Continuum

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  • Picture of Ross Smith FRSA
    Ross Smith FRSA
    Director, Skype for Good at Microsoft
  • Behaviour change
  • Fellowship

As we approach the holiday season and a new calendar year, humanity is being challenged in unique and unheralded ways. Ross Smith FRSA explores how and why we need to reflect on our capacity for empathy.

The influence of globalisation is impacting the way we exist as a human race, frequently resulting in emphasis on our differences instead of our similarities. Societal issues such as global migration and displacement, changes in employment and workforce demographics, diversity of religious ideologies, tension between social and traditional media, and the pervasive rise of mobile computing are calling into question our traditional approaches to community building. Unfortunately, the landscape seems to be shifting the focus towards strife and conflict instead of harmony and cooperation.

Our first step in bridging these differences begins with a look in the mirror. The word empathy comes from the Greek “empatheia”, which is a composite of the words “en” and “pathos” and translates into “being in some sort of suffering, feeling or emotion”.  In 1909, psychologist Edward Titchener introduced the term “empathy” into English as a form of perspective-taking that referred to the psychological process of objectively perceiving another person’s situation. 

One of the biggest challenges we face in society today is how to temper a rush to judgement – responding with a top-of-mind Tweet or a Facebook post – that immediately agrees or disagrees with something. Our brains tend to look for patterns and build on past history and experience to simplify things and make the real world align with our own mental models. To mitigate this tendency, we all must endeavour to pause and think deeply about the perspective of others, adapt our own mental models to avoid the dangers of stereotyping, oversight, and discrimination, and shift to unlock exciting new opportunities.

The empathy continuum represents the degree to which one person can be in the skin of another. Empathy is not sympathy: it’s not about feeling sorry for someone else but about feeling what someone else feels.  Brene Brown believes empathy is inherently different than sympathy, Roman Krznaric highlights how empathy can create a revolution in human relationships, and Eric Barker warns us that it is decreasing. 

As our world becomes smaller, and with the globalisation of industries and cultures, empathy has become an essential skill for all of us to learn and embrace.  In the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Harper Lee writes, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

A variation more appropriate for today is: "Before you judge my life, my past or my character. Walk in my shoes, walk the path I have traveled, live my sorrow, my doubts, my fear, my pain and my laughter. Remember, everyone has a story, when you've lived my life then you can judge me." - Anonymous

Exploring an empathy continuum enables us to identify and label degrees of caring and empathetic behavior.


We will ignore the extremes and focus on the behaviors. An example of someone exhibiting ignorance might be someone accidently inviting a co-worker who does not eat meat because of their religious beliefs to a turkey dinner to give thanks. Selfishness would be a deliberate act, perhaps choosing to drink alcohol at a business meal when it’s against the beliefs of others. Indifference is not changing behavior in any circumstances. Sympathy is observing what another might feel and expressing an understanding for it – to feel sorry for the homeless person on the street corner. A person with empathy takes the time to learn the circumstances and climb inside the mind of another and learn about why they do what they do. They might say "Let me learn more about why you dress a particular way or eat a certain food on that holiday."     

The empathy continuum applies to everyone in different ways at the same time. A person can simultaneously exhibit a variety of empathetic behaviors that can lead to both positive and negative actions. An ignorant person completely lacks awareness of others and a selfish person is aware of others but deliberately chooses to prioritise themselves. Both can lead to negative actions against other people. An indifferent person is aware of others, but chooses to do nothing. A sympathetic person observes what others are going through and will express an understanding, while empathetic people have the ability to climb inside the mind, skin and shoes of others and really internalise what they feel. Both sympathy and empathy lead to positive actions.

Which behaviors should we all want to emulate and demonstrate to others? This is where our mirror neurons start to fire!

RSAnimate’s Empathetic Civilisation illustrates the concept of “mirror neurons” and the tendency to mirror behaviors. Scientific research covered in Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, shows that we are biologically wired to be empathic. The scientific TV programme NOVA shows that we have a lot to learn from how the brain works with empathy.

“There is no real independent self-aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world and inspecting other people; you are in fact connected…quite literally connected by your neurons…and there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from someone else’s consciousness. This emerges from an understanding of basic neuroscience.” - from We really are all one.

Technology and global changes are bringing cultures and values together unlike any other time in history. Empathy is a critical 21st century skill.

Here are a few things that we can all do to develop our own empathic skills:


  • Recognise that your position on the empathy continuum will vary from situation to situation.
  • Imagine yourself as another person – what would you do in their situation? 


  • Be curious – when the actions or reactions of others strikes you as unusual, ask why.
  • Learn about other people’s perspectives others and their decision-making processes.
  • Think about the secondary drivers or underlying issues that may cause others to act. For example, anger directed towards you might stem from your attacker’s health, financial or other pressures.
  • Study and research – particularly when it comes to multicultural awareness 


  • Identify with the experience that others are going through – relate these to times when you went through something similar and remember what you felt.
  • Think about the things that others might be thinking about as they make choices.
  • Pretend that you are faced with the challenges or conflicts that others face.
  • Make a list of what you would do when faced with the circumstances others face.


  • Walk in the shoes of others – volunteer, mentor, coach, reach out and stand shoulder to shoulder with others.
  • Learn about and be respectful of holidays and customs cultures other than your own.
  • Think ahead and role play – spend some time with friends walking through and understanding how actions might feel to others.

If each one of us can step forward with our own small effort to imagine, reflect, identify, and do, we will thrive as one global society. The human race can take a giant leap forward if each one of us works to advance forward on the empathy continuum.

We live in tumultuous times and empathy is the foundational component of all our relationships, which will strengthen our ability to live together in peace. We must work to understand.

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  • Thanks for the great post and food-for-thought this holiday season!