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How to maximize empathy when needed most?

Recently I have noticed renewed interest in the role of empathy in Intercultural and Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) work. And that makes sense because in these uncertain and turbulent times, looking at a situation from the point of view of another person is an essential requisite to understand each other. Yet empathy in itself seems quite a complex phenomenon when we dive into it. Empathy can arise automatically and can be supportive for understanding the other person’s perspective, but unfortunately not always so.


Let’s start with the positive first

As humans we all know our automatic responses to people who are vulnerable, think for instance of a newly born baby, a blind person trying to cross a busy street, or a person who just has lost a beloved one. We easily empathize, reach out to them and respond to take care. Cognitive psychologist Jamil Zaki (2014) studied the motivations to engage in empathic responses and found three driving forces. In general, empathy is seen as a positive trait and being empathic thus gives us a good feeling. Besides it can be personally or socially desirable; it matches your values or these of your community. And even if it requires some additional effort or is emotionally painful to reach out to another person, being empathic also strengthens bonds among people. In sum: humans have unique capacities to empathize with each other and to make living and working together worthwhile and nice.

Yet empathy is context dependent

As empathy can be automatic, it is not always so. Empathy is also deeply context dependent. As there are three driving forces to approach empathy, there are also three patterns in our motivational system that make us avoid empathy. The first of these is when it makes us feel uncomfortable. For instance when we can’t cope with (seeing) pain and we rather look away; or – worse – we even downplay the other persons suffering. As humans we also have a tendency to avoid empathy when it gets in the way of our plans or of getting things done: it’s just too costly or time-consuming. A strict cost-benefit calculation, that we maybe not easily admit but we don’t we all recognize it? At last empathy can be hindered by a lack of affiliation, when we don’t feel a sense solidarity with others. All these responses, towards either approaching empathy or avoiding it happen in a matter of split seconds. It’s a subtle system mainly guided by the intuitive mind that right on the spot reacts with empathy… or with avoidance.

In-group / out-group distinctions

What I found striking is that ‘us-them’ thinking seems prevalent when it comes to empathy. It’s easier for us to empathize with members of our in-groups (e.g. our family-members and friends, members of our community, people of the same age-group, with a similar religious or cultural background, skin color, language group etc.) than with people from the outgroups: ‘the others’. This has huge impact and is very relevant for the intercultural field. It means that with a similar situation at hand – e.g. the blind person try to cross the street – our minds can respond completely different according to the interpretation of the person in the situation. Is the blind person perceived as an outsider or an insider, as a stranger from a distant foreign place or odd or suspicious group; or a familiar person from our community? As humans we empathize with ‘us’ so much more easily than with ‘them’.

Deeper forms of understanding

Being aware of these motivational mechanism to empathy implies that we can’t just say ‘Let’s empathize more with others’; that’s unfortunately too simple. It means that we need to look twice at how to shift perspectives and how to get closer to understanding someone from inside out. That requires not only a cognitive or intellectual effort to understand people who are different from us. It is much more demanding and is about relating ourselves personally to the intentions, beliefs and emotions of others. Listening to others and catching our thoughts and biases in whether we distinguish the in-group from the out-group are key here.

A mindful approach to maximize empathy

We know empathy as a universal force that’s amazingly powerful, and in these times hardly needed. Yet by studying the complexity of empathic responses even more so in inter-group and cross-cultural situations, we can’t just assume that empathy is right there went we need it most. It acquires more knowledge about the complexity of empathy and also a mindful approach to maximize empathy towards others.

Like to know more?

Join the Masterclass Brain, Mind and Culture that Joseph Shaules and I regularly organize.


Joseph Shaules (2020) Language, Culture and the Embodied Mind: A Developmental Model of Linguaculture Learning.

Jamil Zaki (2014) Empathy: a motivated account (in Psychological Bulletin 140)


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Masterclass Brain, Mind & Culture

On October 18, 2024 the next Masterclass Brain, Mind and Culture of Japan Intercultural Institute starts. This Masterclass is a blended learning course (webinars-podcasts-online learning) that introduces the latest insights of culture, brain and mind sciences to those living and working interculturally. You will gain a deeper understanding of the psychology of intercultural experiences, including: culture and cognition, biases, and deep culture learning and transformation. You will learn to be a more insightful interculturalist and learn how to encourage intercultural learning in others. Joseph Shaules and Yvonne van der Pol are your facilitators.

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