slide show
Latest Blog Entries



     There’s an old story about the only living being that just about everybody in the world would agree was lovable—Abraham Lincoln’s dog, Fido.   Empathy is kind of like that.  Just about everybody agrees that being able to understand another person’s condition from their perspective, to “walk a mile in her moccasins” is a crucial interpersonal skill.    

People who study this skill often distinguish between two types of empathy.  “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions, like feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” or “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions. (

     Empathic listening is the communication practice that actualizes this psychological skill.  Executive trainer and best-selling author, Steven Covey ( is so convinced of the importance of empathic listening that he’s

  “. . .devoted much of my life to teaching [it]. . . .  I liken empathic listening to giving people ‘psychological air.’ . . Like the need for air, the greatest psychological need of a human being is to be understood and valued.  When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air.  Once that vital need is met, you can then focus on problem-solving.”

The Potential Problem

      Paying close attention to other’s feelings and thoughts, and listening empathically are useful interpersonal skills.  I’ve emphasized their importance in U&ME: Communicating in Moments that Matter, and in my training and teaching. 

      When you’re in a situation marked by important cultural differences, though, an oversimplified understanding of empathy and empathic listening can create real problems.  Yesterday, for example, I was talking with an African American friend about his future plans, and I sensed a real sense of impatience coming from him that I thought could create problems.  If he acted on his impatience, I worried, he could shoot himself in the foot with possible future employers.  I was empathic enough to sense his feeling of edginess, and my experience told me that his feeling could get him into trouble. 

       When I shared my concern, he explained why I really wasn’t understanding him.  He’d grown up in the projects in Cleveland, and never expected to live to the age of 30.  He was now 34, and he felt a deep-seated pressure to get on with his life while he still had time.  So I was doing my best to understand where he was coming from, and the differences between my cultural experience and his were significant enough that what I thought was empathic understanding created distortion and misunderstanding

      The same kind of thing can happen whenever a person with a clear cultural identity—as LGBTQ, Latina/o, female, disabled, Native American, Black or African American, millennial—interacts with a person who doesn’t share this identity.  Some friends of mine with strong cultural identities have told me that they are driven up the wall by well-meaning majority people who are trying to be empathic and say things like, “I know just how you feel,” or “The same thing happened to me.”  In many cases, this just flat-out can’t be true.  A heterosexual person can’t know what it feels like to be bashed because you’re gay, and woman who grew up in the suburbs can’t know what it’s like to be jumped by a rival gang.

Gold and Platinum Empathy

     This problem has been noticed by some academics who have written about empathy and its ethical anchor, the Golden Rule.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a widely-accepted ethical principle that sets up the importance of, and the need for empathy.  This rule is suggested in the Torah (Leviticus XIX:18), made explicit in Matthew 7:12, and is a central part of Confucius’ teachings about what he calls Kung-Shu []

     If you follow the Golden Rule rule as it’s stated, your actions toward others will be based on your own preferences about how they can best treat you.  When they’re culturally different from you, the rule doesn’t require you to consider these differences at all.  This is what I was doing with my African American friend.  I’ve been through enough job searches to know that impatience can hurt the candidate, and, in my world, this can create problems.  But I don’t enter the search with his life experience.  He might learn from my caution that he ought to moderate his drive toward closure, but I also need to understand the limits of my ability to be empathic.

     If we bump up the empathy standard, we can get a sense of how the other person is different from us, and how their situation differs from ours, uniquely tailored to their perspective and feelings on the matter. We can then put ourselves in their place with these differences intact, added on to ours, and subtracting from ours where necessary. So we can try to occupy their perspective as them, not us, just as we’d wish them to do toward us when acting. (We wouldn’t want them to treat us as they’d wish to be treated, but as we’d wish to be treated when they took our perspective.) [Bill Puka explains this at]

     This way of doing empathy would follow the rule, “Treat others the way they’d wish or choose.”  Some people call this “The Platinum Rule.” []  It might sound like it’s almost the same as the Golden Rule, but the difference can be important for two reasons.  The first is that applying the Platinum Rule forces you out of the ethnocentrism that is the default option for most of us.  The second reason it’s important is that the other person will experience a level of confirmation and respect from you that can significantly improve everything that happens next.

     The only way to practice Platinum Empathy successfully is either to know the other person very well, or to ask them how they’d like to be treated. A good prediction of their preference would have to be based on your knowledge of some track record of what they’ve liked in the past, perhaps acquired from a friend of theirs or your own experience with them as a friend.  If you can’t ask, then perhaps you’re not so much treating them ethically as guessing what they’d like. Trying to put yourself in their place here would not seem like a good idea.

      As Bill Puka summarizes,

Without involving others, such role-taking is a unilateral affair, whether well-intended or otherwise. It is often paternalistic, choosing someone’s best interest. The whole process is typically done by oneself, within one’s self-perspective or ego, and it can be spun as one wishes, no checks involved. Fairer and more respectful alternatives would involve not only consulting others on their actual outlooks, but including them in our decision making. “Is it OK with you if….” This approach. . .is based on a different sort of mutuality, democratizing our choices and actions so that they are multilateral.  []

The bottom line is that it’s good to practice empathy and, especially  in multicultural situations, much better to practice platinum empathy.




PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.
Editor Permission Required
You must have editing permission for this entry in order to post comments.