Why you should train your Empathy Muscle

Why you should train your Empathy Muscle

Empathy is a big word in today’s society, workplaces and personal relationships. It’s also a word that’s often not clear in definition and hard to grasp. Are we simply born with it or can we learn it? Does empathy make us soft and unable to make tough calls in those Last 8% moments? Are women generally more empathic than men? One thing people can agree on: we all need it in order to be successful as partners, bosses, co-workers, friends and other areas of life. Let’s shed light on what empathy actually means psychologically and scientifically, and how we may have misconceived notions about it.

The three myths of empathy:

When people think about empathy, there are usually three myths surrounding the concept that we need to clarify in order to understand it better. These are:

  1. Empathy is something you are born with.
  2. Women biologically have more empathy than men.
  3. Being too empathetic means we are soft and unable to make tough decisions or have the hard conversations required to be effective. If we have high levels of empathy, we are not strong leaders, don’t stand up for ourselves or our beliefs and easily get taken advantage of.

Let’s have a look at how these 3 myths hold up in science.

Empathy is like a muscle

Is empathy really a trait we are born with, that we simply have or don’t? Whilst genetics definitely play a role in how much empathy you come equipped with, it doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable. Much like any muscle in your body, the more you “flex” it, the stronger it grows. We have three types of muscles in our body – smooth, skeletal and cardiac. The same counts for three types of empathy.

Emotional empathy means you can feel the emotions others are experiencing, may it be joy or distress.


Cognitive empathy means you can understand what and how others are thinking, what is going wrong for them and why.


Compassion is a concern for how someone is feeling and the deep-rooted desire for their well-being to improve.

Further, experts analyzed that different parts of our brain are responsible for processing these three types of empathy. For example, people with Autism and other spectrum disorders  tend to struggle with the cognitive part of empathy, to actually understand what people’s specific distress or emotional challenge is. On the other hand, they usually don’t lack emotional empathy – they can feel their distress and have compassion.

People diagnosed as psychopaths on the other hand usually understand how others may be feeling – therefore possess cognitive empathy -  but struggle with feeling the emotions others are experiencing, lacking emotional empathy.

As with most things in life, your ability to change lies in the belief that you can. People who think empathy is simply a genetic trait, tend to not improve on it, whilst people who think it is something you can learn, will strengthen their “empathy muscle” over time and become better at it.

Empathy is not biologically gender-specific

There is no scientific evidence that women are more empathic in nature than men. Gender alone has no impact on how much empathy someone is born with, biologically it’s an equal plain. What does play into gender-specific differences in empathy are societal norms. Women throughout their lives receive messages to value empathy more than men – which encourages them to use this “muscle” more, therefore strengthening it to greater extent. Men are not receiving the same messages and as a result, tend to not value or develop empathy to the same degree. As Maya Angelou quotes: “I think we all have empathy. We may not have the courage to display it.”

Empathy is not people-pleasing

Understanding and being able to relate to other people’s feelings is very different from condoning them. Empathy as an emotional response is not related to the action that follows – it doesn’t mean we will align with their beliefs or excuse their behaviour. You may get good at feeling and understanding what others are feeling, and still stand strong in your response. This is an important distinction. You can spend lots of time trying to understand someone and still act decisively around them. Empathy is neither about people pleasing nor being a push-over. It’s understanding what impact we may have on others because of their feelings and choosing our actions by considering that information.

Why should you grow your empathy?


The common idea that we benefit others when we grow our empathy, is only part of the equation. When we become more empathic, we gain as well. Empathy allows us to be less self-referential, less focused on ourselves, which leads to more happiness, less stress and depression. It also allows us to become better negotiators as we are more in tune with other people’s needs. This helps us improve our personal relationships as well as our careers and act powerfully in those Last 8% Moments of life.

Higher empathy impacts all professions, as studies conducted by the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations revealed: physicians are able to understand their patients better, and when they feel understood, they are more likely to follow instructions better, which leads generally to better treatment results . Empathic managers have proven to cause happier, more engaged employees, which results in less sick days and more productivity. A study conducted with cosmetic company L’Oreal determined that the most empathic amongst their sales people sold nearly US$ 100.000 more than their colleagues, resulting in a net revenue increase of US$ 2,558,360. Waiters with stronger empathy earn nearly 20% more tips, empathic debt collectors will recover twice as much debt.

More empathy leads to improved adaptability

The evidence paints a clear picture why growing empathy benefits everyone. Surprisingly though, empathy is even linked to our level of adaptability, and in simple terms – our survival. According to research, thousands of years ago we were hardly smarter than all the animals around us, nor were we stronger physically. What was specific to humans was their empathy and therefore the ability to collaborate and work better together than other species. This supported our ability to adapt to the changing conditions, and therefore our survival. It has been proven that cultures with a stronger societal focus on empathy also possess better adaptability.

It’s as false as it is short-sided to do away with empathy as something “soft and squishy”, or use it as a buzz word to drive more sales. Science shows: Empathy is measurable, and training your empathy muscle allows you improve all aspects of your life and deal with Last 8% situations more effectively.

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