Thinking out loud: What is true empathy?

Matej Zeliska
3 min readOct 3, 2019

We often talk about it. We often claim to master it. But I think that most of the time we just don’t get it (double meaning intended).

A person sitting in front an interior wall, holding a red sign with a sad smiley in front of their face.

When I rewind back to my high school years, I remember discussing empathy during our ethical education classes.

“Empathy is the ability to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes.”

This was the definition we were taught. Back then, it seemed logical. When someone talks about their problems to you, just think about how would you behave in that same situation. Boom, you’re being empathetic.

Later in life I found out how horribly wrong this pattern of thinking is. How insufficient and potentially lethal to our relationships. And yet, so many people still understand empathy this way.

It’s wrong, because you can’t put yourself into somebody else’s shoes. The way we experience life is completely unique to each and every one of us, defined by our genes, by the circumstances we were born into, by our previous experience and so many other factors.

If I friend tells you that they’re terrified of speaking in public and you have always been a natural public speaker, you will never truly comprehend what it means to them to stand in front of an expectant audience. You can’t say “I know what it feels like.” You don’t. You might have been a little nervous in a similar situation before, but that’s about the extent of it. You have never experienced being all sweat and fear, on a verge of collapsing in that kind of a situation.

I know people who would say stuff like “I know what that feels like, you just have to roll with it” in a situation like that. Or even worse “That’s stupid, you shouldn’t be that scared, it’s just a simple presentation.”

I have also heard the same people say “Oh, I’m really an empathetic person, I can certainly put myself into the shoes of other people.”

No, you’re behaving like a self-centered douche-bag.

True empathy, I believe, is about respect and acceptance.

I believe that in order to truly practice empathy, first we need to accept that the understanding of some experiences will be always out of our reach.

If you’re a white person born in Eastern Europe, you will never be able to grasp the isolation a black person can feel in a predominantly Eastern European culture.

If you’re a mentally stable, extroverted person, you will never be able to understand how a socially anxious person feels in front of a crowd.

And so on.

True empathy is saying “Well, I don’t know what it feels like, but I believe you when you say that you feel that way. And I’m with you. I accept you and I respect you.”

True empathy is much harder, because it requires us to let go of our egos. It’s about accepting that other people’s way of experiencing life is different from ours. Nor better, nor worse, just different.

However, true empathy is not about accepting actions. One might be able to empathize with a racist person, accepting their feelings of anger and fear and respecting them as a human being. But one can’t accept violence as a result of these feelings.

The world needs true empathy

I’m trying to be good at true empathy. It’s crucial not just for my job as a designer, but also for my life as a husband, friend, son.

And I want to spread it, because I think we all need it. Although emotions play an important role in it, true empathy has the ability to put them on the side of a discussion. It acknowledges them, but it also allows to move the truly important matters forward.

You won’t solve a problem with your spouse by telling them to calm down and be rational (I still keep trying and I never learn).

People who are unmoved by evidence climate change, terrified of immigration or hateful towards LGBT people won’t change their minds if we keep telling them their emotions are wrong.

Emotions aren’t right or wrong. They just are. We should learn to accept them, respect them and proceed to dealing with the important issues at hand.

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Matej Zeliska

I want to design a world where people are free to focus their time and energy whenever they want.