Practicing Empathy In Daily Life

August 15, 2011
Brandon Sutton and Daryl Arnold

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, and I’d like to share a few thoughts on the subject.

The definition of empathy is “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

Last week, I accepted the challenge of caring for my 13-month-old Godson while his parents were traveling on business. I was an unexpected ask for all of us, but I thought it was a good opportunity for me to bond with the little guy and help them out in the process.

Suffice it to say that I had no idea what I was in for when I agreed to do it. Not that it would have changed my willingness to help. To the contrary, I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn about a side of humanity that I have never experienced. And yes, it is very different than anything I could have imagined.

I will never look at a parent pushing a baby stroller while walking a dog the same way again. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever look at parents in general the same way again. The level of respect that I have for them has gone through the roof after this experience.

Taking care of a toddler for a week has a way of putting things into perspective quickly. Just like putting ourselves into the shoes of others in vastly different situations than we experience in our lives can as well. When faced with the pressures of these situations, a whole different way of looking at the world has a chance to emerge.

Brandon Sutton and Daryl ArnoldSeveral close friends are in research and cultural anthropology, and they often share the methodology they use to get into the minds and hearts of the people they are studying. Often, this requires immersion into the environments of the subjects so that they can see firsthand how they go about their day and experience the environmental factors that they deal with day in and day out.

How many of us really do this in our lives though? How often do we truly push ourselves way beyond our comfort zones and experience things that others are experiencing every day.

When we are tempted to pass judgement on someone because of something they have done that we perceive as wrong or inconsiderate, do we really know what is going on with that other person?

Could we benefit from zooming out when we get caught up in frustrations in the moment and practice empathy for other people when we are tempted to focus exclusively on our own needs and desires? Can we identify with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others before jumping to conclusions and casting judgement?

This isn’t just personal, by the way. There is a place for this type of practice in business as well. Marketers can peek into the lives of their customers so that they are providing products and services that truly benefit those on the receiving end.

Managers can take the time to not only get to know their staff better, but also tag along with them from time to time to see and hear what their jobs are really like every day.

On paper, these may seem straightforward, but the actual dynamics of these experiences include outside influences that are not easy to sum up in a report or a job description. The totality of factors that come together in a person’s life impacts the way they see, hear and experience the world. Thoughtful leaders and marketers take this into account and develop methods for staying connected with the people who they are leading or marketing to so they are better attuned to what is really going on in their lives.

Television, movies, music, books, articles, etc. all provide us with information – a perspective. We are influenced by what we see, hear, read, etc., and these can be powerful ways of communicating ideas, hopes, dreams, concerns, crises, etc. But what if on occasion, instead of relying exclusively on these things to inform our world view, we decided to go see for ourselves how reality matches up with what we are seeing, hearing, and reading? How might this experience help us develop empathy for others whose lives are very different than ours? Have you ever thought about this?

Two outstanding resources come to mind that I wanted to share. One is an article that I ran across a couple of weeks back that totally floored me: That truck driver you flipped off? Let me tell you his story. If you drive a car, ever, this is a must-read article.

And the other is a video by Derek Sivers, A real person, a lot like you that does a fantastic job of illustrating how online interactions can be easily misconstrued, causing unintended negative consequences for other people, just like us.

Please take a time-out of your day for just a few minutes and do me a favor. Read the article about the trucker and watch the video from Derek. When you’re done, please leave a comment here describing how this might apply to something you are going through in your own life.

Today, I’m grateful for these reminders that I have no idea what’s going on in the worlds of most of the people I interact with every day, yet I can practice empathy for others and adjust how I react in any given situation. This is a valuable lesson, and I’m making a concerted effort to develop this habit as I go through life.

Are you with me?

Photo: Brandon and Katrina Survivor Daryl Arnold by Terrell Clark


  • Reply Tracy Nunnelley August 16, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    I’m with you Brandon! That article and that video were awesome! I sending the video around to all my co-workers. 90% of the communications in the company I work for is via email or instant messenger. I think we all need that kind of awareness when using such tools. I’ve been guilty of passing judgement and not taking into consideration what the other person must be going through so it’s as much of a reminder for me as for them.
    I bet those parents are so grateful for your help! As they say it takes a village…

    • Reply Brandon Sutton August 16, 2011 at 6:37 pm

      Thanks, Tracy.  David’s video is excellent, and is an outstanding reminder of how impersonal our communications can be online. Glad this resonated with you.  And yes, the parents are very grateful, but honestly I think I got more out of it than any of them did. It was truly a remarkable experience for me. Hope you have an awesome day!

  • Reply Darcie Jolliff August 16, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    Yes, I am with you!  Empathy is something I practice every day and I constantly try to help others understand this concept. Empathy is something that I’ve since I was little.  I guess I was born with it.  I took the Strengths Finder Test several months ago. It gives you your top 5 strengths/themes and Empathy was my top strength. You can find the test here.

    I have seen a lot of my friends and family judge others, gossip, etc. and it really hurts my heart.  I always try to point out that we don’t know what their life is like or what they are dealing with or even how they grew up.  My good friend Wendy posted this on Facebook the other day and it really rang true with me “You never know what someone else has been through. Appearances can be deceiving. Do not be judgmental of others. Everyone has their own cross to bear.”

    I am so glad you wrote this Brandon 🙂  I will definitely be sharing this and really hope this concept will be embraced by others.  I also really like the story about you keeping your godson, LOL.  Parenting is extremely challenging but so rewarding.  I now know what my parents went through!  I have grown so much stronger since becoming a mother and can really appreciate my parents and other parents out there.

    • Reply Brandon Sutton August 16, 2011 at 8:53 pm

      Excellent – thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’ll check out the Strength Finder test for sure.

      For me, it starts with being aware when I’m casting judgement or otherwise making assumptions about someone or something else. It’s like building up a muscle – the more we’re aware of it, the easier it is to let go of the tendency to react with negativity, gossip, judgement, etc.

      Thanks for sharing!  Did you send the post to your friend Wendy? 🙂

  • Reply Jeff Duvall August 16, 2011 at 10:31 pm

     GREAT post, Brandon!  The “E” word (Emapthy) needs to get a lot more play.  I am now wondering which brands, companies and organizations actually walk the talk in this space.  Hmmm…will be getting back to you later on this one.
    Great writing and Great storytelling, Brando 🙂

    • Reply Brandon Sutton August 17, 2011 at 1:23 am

      Thanks, Jeff.  I totally agree about the need for more empathy in the marketplace. The work that you do is so important for this reason. Many of our conversations echoed in my head as I wrote this.

      Oh, and I’m glad we popped your comment cherry. 😉

  • Reply Jeff Duvall August 16, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    By the way…my comment 20 seconds ago marks my first ever comment posting outside of facebook.  Ever.  Does Hallmark make THAT card?   You never forget your first time.

  • Reply Ibosarge August 17, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Hi Brandon. What a great article. I can relate to this so much. My husband being a truck driver for 15 yrs and also the heartfelt pain I had reading about the sister that had pasted. I too had to tell my husband over the phone when his mother past away. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It left me feeling so helpless fo him, alone, in a phonebooth at a truckstop 500 miles from home. It breaks my heart now even talking about it.   
        I will share your post as usual and I do hope it strikes a nerve or two with some that do have a tendancy to express themselves without any compassion or thought of the well being for others.
      And I have to say that I’m so proud of you for taking the time to connect with your Godson. How cool is that! 

    • Reply Brandon Sutton August 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm

      Thank you for sharing, Lori. Another excellent reminder that we truly have no idea what is going on with others who we may be tempted to pass judgement on.

      And, yes, the experience with Caelan was amazing – wouldn’t trade it for anything.

      Thanks again for sharing!

  • Reply Lyn August 17, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Gosh, how empathetic – to take on a child for a period of time is to put yourself in ALL
    parent’s shoes.  On a note to reply to Jeff’s question below: “I am now wondering which brands, companies and organizations actually walk the talk in this space” I can’t help but think of one of Warren Buffet’s posts this week. Yes, the political aspect was about encouraging Congress to raise taxes on the rich, but the part that I noticed was that he paid 17% in taxes last year, but knew that “everyone in my office paid more than I did…”  This is an empathetic man, a man in touch with his employees.  Gives one hope!  Thanks, Brandon, for another fine reminder!

    • Reply Brandon Sutton August 17, 2011 at 5:15 pm

      Excellent observation, Lyn. Thanks for pointing it out.  It does indeed provide some hope that there are good people out there that want the best for everyone, not just themselves. There are probably a lot more that we don’t hear from.  Unfortunately, we’re drowning in the negative, polarizing bickering that’s served up in the media incessantly.

      I hope that this little corner of the internet can provide a respite and hopefully inspire some people to ask more questions instead of assuming they have the answers. Thanks again for the thoughtful comment.

  • Reply Edwin Rutsch August 18, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    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.


    Also, I invite you to
    post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    • Reply Brandon Sutton August 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks for reaching out, Edwin.  I checked out your site and the short film at the bottom of the home page. It’s very cool what you’re trying to do.  The RSA Animate film is also excellent – I’ve seen it previously. 

      Check out my friend John Marshall Roberts – Empathy is at the heart of his Worldview Thinking practice.  You might enjoy connecting with him.

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