Empathy – Men’s New Secret Weapon

How men develop empathy

I remember, in my first psychotherapy grad course, when the professor talked about empathy’s champion, Carl Rogers and his person-centered therapy. He explained how connecting with the client built trust, thereby aiding therapy. I remembered thinking, “This is obvious. Why didn’t I think of it?”

I later realized, one of the reasons I didn’t think of it was that the act of a man caring and connecting to another was not encouraged. In fact, the opposite was encouraged. As teenagers, we were admired for our ability to be nonchalant, if not cruel. You often hear in a man’s humor, a cut that shows everyone, not only does he not care, but that he is smarter and quicker, because he said the wisecrack before anyone else.

A medical school physician, in this ABC news interview, believed that empathy was not teachable. A recent study proved that empathy is teachable – even to med students. The study went on to show how empathy impacts the patient’s healing. The reward for physicians learning empathy is a reduced risk of lawsuits.

Jeffrey Cohn, a former fellow at both the Harvard Business School and the CEO Leadership Institute at Yale, writes in his latest book “Why are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders?“, that we pick bad leaders because we are looking for the wrong qualities. The seven qualities we need to look for are:

  1. Integrity
  2. Passion
  3. Courage
  4. Vision
  5. Judgment
  6. Empathy
  7. Emotional intelligence

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to share in another’s emotions, thoughts or feelings. Sympathy is about feeling bad for another, which can lead to pity. Empathy sets up equanimity, while sympathy sets up “I’m better than…”. Appreciation rarely evolves out of sympathy, yet it can with empathy, whereby you feel more connected with the person.

What empathy gives you

You may find yourself enjoying life more. The more you connect to others, the deeper the interaction. It is as if you step beyond a screen to actually contact the person. You go from being an observer or critic, to a participant.

What others don’t tell you is that you first need to connect to yourself, before there is  the possibility of connecting to another. That means you must be aware of your own experience, feelings, thoughts and desires. Empathy is a difficult skill to learn, when the student has little awareness about his own experience. If you are under an awareness anesthesia, there won’t be much ability to connect with another person.

The core skill I teach men, who lead men’s groups, is awareness of their own feelings – physical and emotional. As a man develops his self-awareness, he not only connects more deeply to other men, he is also able to take that man deeper into his own experience. The depth of your empathy will be limited by the depth of your self-awareness and your willingness to reveal.

I remember, many years ago, a girl friend saying to me, “What you are saying are all the reasons I should care.  But, I’m not feeling you.” That was a wake-up call for me.  Not only was I not empathetic, I wasn’t even connecting to my own feeling. As men, we are trained to think that communicating is expressing ideas. Mastering empathy teaches us that the other side of communicating is feeling and expressing emotions.

It was scary letting down my rational guard to feel and express. Like learning most things, I stumbled repeatedly. Expressing my feelings was about as challenging as a beginning tennis player trying to beat  a pro. I felt things, but had a difficult time finding the words to express them. As I struggled, I realized that the other person became very patient. Just the attempt to be empathetic produced empathy in my listener. Looking back, I have compassion for my girl friends who suffered through my learning curve.

I also learned that women are so hungry for a man to be empathetic, that they will endure almost anything to have a man feel and communicate emotions. As I saw women open up to me, I realized that even being an amateur at empathy, I moved to the head of the class. I had women, who wouldn’t have been attracted to me before, attracted to me. Yes, I used this. I was never insincere, but I over-emphasized my empathy at the cost of standing up as a man… that’s another post.

What takes you out of feeling empathy?

Our training 

We all grew up in a culture that traditionally rewarded machismo. The less you felt and expressed, the more of a man you were. The last thing you would do was to empathize with someone else’s situation.  When you empathize, not only are you expressing your emotions, you are relating to another emotionally.

You might not live in that world, not now. You likely grew up in it, so its impact is still with you, if only unconsciously. In spite of knowing about this, I still find myself holding back, feeling an old concern of being judged for being ‘sensitive’. Often, when I do feel the urge to step back into my old shy pattern where I want to step back from relating to a person, I take a breath and step forward. The act of empathizing with my own experience creates an opening to step forward into connecting with another person.

Your survival response 

We all have survival hardwired into us. If we feel threatened, that response may kick in. That threat might be emotional. Someone else’s experience can trigger a feeling within us that we feel threatened. For example, you see a man crying, sitting on a bench in a train station. He’s dressed in a suit, holding a cell phone in his lap, looking like he just received bad news. You feel sad. Seeing him reminds you of your loss. You feel an urge to sit down next to him to offer support. Yet, your head is now giving all the reasons why not to sit next to him.

You’re not in danger. Nevertheless, you feel this blast of adrenaline rush through your blood at the thought of sitting next to him. Some part of you feels threatened. It’s your vulnerability. It’s not knowing what to say. It’s the possible judgments of all those also noticing the man. It’s the fear he may ask something of you that would further embarrass you. The more you stand there, the more you back away.

I back away- we all back away from emotional vulnerability and empathy. To step in is to give up control. That is difficult for men. We were trained that emotions and expressed caring gets us in trouble. We are shamed for expressing our care. If we thought about it, we could remember being teased for the times we cried or showed concern. Our physical body may not be in danger, but our ego is.

How to develop empathy


Teach yourself to be aware of what is occurring for you – emotionally, physically, intellectually and yes, sexually. The more awareness you have of your own experience, the more perceptive you will be of another. It’s like you go from having a little antennae dish to a huge satellite dish. When you open up your awareness, it is as if you turn on new receptors so you can easily perceive what others aren’t. Plus, the other person will pick up on your vulnerability encouraging him or her to engage.

The best way to develop this awareness is through the practice of mindfulness. Check out other mentions of mindfulness on this site and Google. The short course on mindfulness is the course I taught, the Mindfulness Stress Reduction Program.


As I did when I realized I was woefully unskilled at empathy, I just started speaking with the intent of speaking what I felt, regardless of the risk. You need to be willing to be wrong and at least, inarticulate. Don’t give up. Keep speaking to the best of your abilities. Quickly, you will see improvement.


Now that you have some skill, keep practicing it in new and more demanding situations. Go from being empathetic with your friends, to strangers, then to people in authority. Don’t make it a new mask you wear. Always stay connected to what you are experiencing. Always forgo sounding good for being honest.

You will hear others being eloquent. Don’t try to be them. Be yourself. The most eloquent words are the true ones. Go for simplicity and brevity. For most people, when they talk more they are distancing themselves further from their own feelings. The challenge is in speaking your truth in few words, then letting them sit with the person.


You want to get good at empathy – hang with others who are good at it. I see men join our men’s groups who struggle having an empathetic conversation in the groups, or for that matter at home. After a few months of practice and supportive feedback, they are able to have others feel like they are being felt, understood and appreciated.

You may need to be the one to initiate empathy in a relationship. Most people will step up after they feel they can trust your empathy. They may even test you unconsciously, to make sure you are really attempting to connect with them. If they are unwilling to deepen the relationship, either they are afraid, or don’t know how. Your risking proves to them that it’s safe. Your empathy should be a model for them on how they can do it. If you care about the relationship, you may need to speak up as my girl friend did, and say what you want.

Use empathy throughout your life

Now that you are mastering the skill, expand where you use it. Bring it to work. Start connecting to people in a real manner. Jeffrey Cohn’s seven qualities are all connected. As you build your empathy skills, you will inevitably strengthen the other six. Empathy is the catalyst for all the new skills required for success today.

The funny thing is that I never became a therapist, in part because many of the therapists I met didn’t embody empathy. Their interactions were more cognitive than empathetic. Break out of the model of being a stoic man. Step up and risk to connect with others.

Do you have any suggestions or tips on strengthening empathy?

Photo by Seboist64

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Empathy – Men’s New Secret Weapon

8 Responses

  1. Great Post! And if the Sand Point Men’s Group isn’t close to you – connect with a local ManKind Project community to find one that IS close to you.

    Boysen Hodgson March 4, 2012 at 8:51 am #
    • Thanks Boysen. Yes check out MKP.org for a local group. They are a bunch of great men.

      Owen Marcus March 4, 2012 at 9:16 am #
  2. This article was both informative and affirming for me. I have a better understanding now of what empathy is and how to continue developing it in myself as I relate and interact with others. Thanks.

    Bill Shea March 4, 2012 at 11:16 am #
    • Thanks Bill. Ashoka is working on teaching kids empathy.. I wish they taught us.

      Owen Marcus March 4, 2012 at 12:01 pm #
  3. hi Owen

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

    I’d like to invite you to
    do an interview via Skype with me &
    lead an empathy panel in our:
    International Online Conference on:
    How Can We Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion?
    The topic of empathy and men would be very interesting.

    edwin rutsch March 7, 2012 at 10:50 am #
    • Thanks Edwin for more resources on how to create and use empathy. I would love to do an interview and be on your panel. Let me know what you need.

      Owen Marcus March 7, 2012 at 10:59 am #
  4. Terrific article, Owen, and an excellent resource for men who are seeking more depth in their lives, their relationships, and their personal experience. I’ve already shared it with some other men I know and will continue to do so as opportunities present.

    Rick Belden March 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm #
    • Thank Rick. In the right situation empathy is easy to learn and it’s certainly a powerful skill.

      Owen Marcus March 10, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

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