On being human

Empathy — how to develop it in two dimensions

Empathy is a key skill. It enables cooperation between people. But it is not well understood. When we say empathy, we usually mean the emotional part. It is the inherent quality of a mind. We have a very good instinct in recognising people’s emotions. When we meet someone, it takes less than a second to see if she is angry or happy, stressed or calm.

This is the most obvious dimension. The second dimension is insight into people’s reasoning. It is called perspective taking or cognitive empathy. Both these combined can give the full picture of others. We can get better at it, but get ready for a bumpy ride.

1. Insight into people’s feelings — Emotional level

Opens the door for communication

If you speak with someone empathic, you feel safe. You know that if you say something, it won’t be used against you. When people feel safe with you, they will easily speak with you.

You don’t need to use a lot of small talk in the work. This communication runs on the background. Your body leads empathic communication, and your subconsciousness is checking: Can I trust this person, while your words are talking about serious business stuff.

Maybe you are the one who makes people nervous and are often told you have no empathy.

There are some cheap tricks that can help you. You can repeat last three words of the sentence, or mimic a posture and facial expression. Please don’t use them.

You should be genuinely interested in people. That’s it. Sometimes it is difficult, but it’s better than using these tricks to manipulate.

Overwhelmed by emotions of others

Sometimes it’s too much. You cannot help yourself and start crying or stonewalling. It means you reached the edge of your emotional capacity.

You either choose to be apathetic and distant your self from people or situations, or you choose a path of compassion.

More likely you follow the orange line. So what is the compassion and why is sometimes our aim to develop empathy further.


Empathy is a feeling as another, compassion is a feeling for another. It can be also perceived as distancing from people and it might be right. Compassion put you first, others second. You feel your own emotion and feel for other. You can be caring a loving being who stays sane no matter what.

In an airplane they say, first put an oxygen mask on yourself then help the other. This is the best definition of compassion that I have found.

2. Insight into people’s thinking — Perspective level

Communication goes efficiently

This dimension of empathy is also called Cognitive empathy and we have two problems with it. Yes, diving in the problems might seem like a bad start, but lets’ be honest we generally suck at this dimension.

First problem, we expect that the other person thinks like us. So our speech is rather thinking out loud. And we are sometimes proud how we said something until we saw those faces who just didn’t get our point.

The second problem is that we assume how others think. We underestimate people and try to oversimplify things when it is not needed.

3. How to get better at taking perspectives of others?

Start with yourself and investigate how you think. This will give you access to a vocabulary used to describe thinking. Pay attention to your motivations. Explore how you reason, how you handle conflict and how you deal with paradoxes. Getting to know yourself is like getting to know others. You can do it anytime, but you are usually lazy or assume you know yourself.

Getting know others, you actually need to speak with them. So let’s explore two situation which can be a learning opportunity.

1. Carefully listening during arguments

Argument and disagreement are situations in which you can learn about others, unless you scream at each other. You need to observe carefully how the dialog goes. It can tell you a lot about values of other person and how they think about them.

Imagine this situation: Manager give you a task to prepare a regular presentation for a meeting with senior leadership. You should include data from the accounting system and changes in the team. In the last couple meetings, you notice that nobody was interested in this update.

You say: “Hey boss, I know it’s only 30 minutes work, but we all know that it is a useless presentation. Nobody, except maybe our director would be interested in this data at this moment, neither they will care about our team. I remember the last time it was awkward when you presented this. Can we maybe not do it this time?”

Case 1:

“I I understand you, no one is interested in it. But as you say, it is only 30 minutes work and you know our director. I would spend more time explaining why it is not necessary to do it than actually do it. You know what they say, pick up you fight. So let’s do it. And don’t think about that too much.”

Case 2:

“You know who are on those meeting, senior leadership from Germany. This what they expect. Prepare the same presentation with new data. I think our director knows more what senior leadership team expect. He keeps them happy, we keep him happy. So let’s do it.”

Case 3:

“I get your point, nobody will be interested in this presentation. But our director expected that. Do you think you could create something more informative and connect it with the project you are working on now? We can use this time as the opportunity to move the project forward. Just quickly update the slide and add these additional information.”

Case 4:

“I will speak with the director. We need some good argumentation. Can you please check with Data Analytics team if the dashboard are ready? We could link it to the dashboards and make the data accessible in real time.”

In all cases, your manager answers were very empathic, there is a good line of communication between you two. You work like a team.

In the Case 1, effectivity and maybe short term orientation is the key value in his thinking. When speaking with such a person you can focus on finding efficiences.

In the Case 2, the manager wants to please the management and not think about a broader perspective. In your argument you should focus on, how to present change of the process to senior leadership

In the Case 3, the manager tries to change this into the opportunity with a larger scale. In this case manager outsmarted you. In argumentation with him, you must always think about broader perspective.

In the Case 4, the manager not only thinks in a broader perspective, but try to takes the perspective of the director, his own innovation and also whole team. In such discussion you must always think on several perspectives. You should be considerate in which case which perspective solve the problem best.

I am not saying which type of thinking is the best, each of them is important for different tasks.

That was only one situation and you cannot make a conclusion about your manager. However more you engage with him and be a careful observer than you see patterns. And there is a shortcut. You can ask a question.

2. Asking question

If you are lucky, and you are engaged in the longer conversion with someone. You can ask more questions. Skip the small talk and be curious.

Let’s explore what kind of question to ask instead of small talk. You are having a wine with a friend and she complains about her job. She is an experienced auditor in her area of leasing, but her manager challenge every aspect of her work. She rewrites all her reports and receive a lot of side tasks she does not have time to perform. She also complains that lot that the task are not relevant the audited area.

You know what is she complaining about but you want to understand why. You need to ask different questions. And before you ask try to listen more, don’t assume anything.

- Why are you so irritated by this?
- Why do you think she is doing this?
- What’s the hardest on this cooperation?
- Would opposite work for you better? Are you confident that you don’t need so much supervision?
- What would you do with it?
- What can you actually do with it?

These questions can be tricky and it really depends on how say them. To say it right, you need the emanational empathy on a higher level. It can deepen your understanding and bond with a friend or you can piss them off.

4. Balance between emotions and perspectives

Now you know that you need both qualities, probably you don’t have them in all situation. So let’s explore 6 types of persons with different empathy levels.

Cold Egocentric

You don’t feel others’ emotions, people think you are cold as the ice and self centric, because you speak about yourself a lot. You also have problems understanding why all the people are behaving in a very strange way. It can happen to all of us that we end up this area. The advice is both difficult and simple: Focus on other people, listen, ask. Stop speaking for a moment.

Smart manipulator

You can be manipulative, you understand people but don’t care about them. It might be very functional. However bear in mind it is only short term, people will leave you eventually. You probably understand perfectly why, but cannot do something about it. What you might try is take people as an end and not a mean. People are not tools for your goals, but their wellbeing could be a goal itself.

Cry baby

You got a strong emotional empathy, but you easily overload. Don’t identify with feelings of others too much. If you are a sensitive person and cannot withstand suffering of others, you must know that even the suffering is the inner feeling which come and go. Understanding their perspective might be more helpful that to feel exactly what they feel. And what is most important, put yourself of the first place. If you want help other, keep yourself in good mental condition.

Best friend

Friend will understand you and will cry with you. He will sometimes feel pity for you, this is what friendship is about. Friends are usually not compassionate because they would have to create distance. If you are best friend with too many people, it’s probably not right. Because you get overwhelmed, focus on own mental wellbeing.


Don’t imagine nurses only, but anyone who needs to be compassionate and probably need not to understand. You are very good listener, you have the caring face. So it might happen that people are going to you often. You seem like someone who could understand them, but when they ask for advice, you do not understand. Focus less on maintaining that caring appearance, but more on listening and asking a question.

Life coach

Reaching this level of understanding of peoples mind and emotions gives you the access to other five roles. If you operate on this level most of the time you are a life coach. You listen, you understand, you care and advise (if asked). But you need to rest sometimes. You can care about elderly and not asking too much questions. You are best friend and cannot distant from loved ones. Some times you just want to cry, because… because you are human. When facing enemies you can be strong manipulator. And you know what, if you are drunk egocentric bragging about great article you just wrote on Medium, that is also OK on Friday night.

PS: If you are interested in other key skills, it’s here.

Further reading


Daniel Goleman — The Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman — The Social Intelligence


Matthieu Ricard — Happiness

Perspective taking as the level in human development

How To Be An Adult — Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development

Jennifer Garvey Berger — Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World



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Tomáš Plesník

Tomáš Plesník


Financial professional writing about future of work and how to stay human in the competition of AI.