Now, more than ever, we need people who are willing to be the change they wish to see in the world.

It’s easy to feel discouraged about the state of the world these days. With a lingering pandemic that may never be truly over in the sense that we expected, polarized views on said pandemic, women’s reproductive rights coming into question, continued social injustices against various cultural and racial groups and a full blown war going on, being a citizen of earth can feel like a little much right now. (Understatement of the century.)

But! There is still hope. Deep down, we have to believe that most people want to come together, understand each other and work out the differences among us. How can we do that productively and kindly? Through practices like radical empathy.

If you’ve never heard of this term before, don’t worry, it’s a new one. Below, we’ll discuss what radical empathy is, why it matters and how you can start to cultivate it so you can do your part to make this world a better place. 

What Exactly Is “Radical Empathy”?

Radical empathy is a term coined by entrepreneur, author and renowned political scientist Terri Givens, who is a professor of political science at McGill University and the founder of the Center for Higher Education Leadership and Brighter Professional Development. She wrote the book Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides, which was published in early 2021 in the aftermath of the brutal killing of George Floyd and a pandemic that has overwhelmingly affected marginalized communities. 

According to Givens, people need to expand their definition of empathy to go beyond simply walking in someone else’s shoes to understand their experiences and go deeper into understanding the origins of the biases and worldview that they’ve developed over the years. She explains that radical empathy is actually two kinds of empathy: emotional, which is understanding how someone else feels, and cognitive, which is understanding how someone else sees the world.

(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

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In her book, Givens breaks down achieving radical empathy into the following steps:

  • A willingness to be vulnerable
  • Opening yourself to the experiences of others
  • Taking action
  • Becoming grounded in who you are
  • Practicing empathy
  • Creating change and building trust

There’s a difference between merely feeling empathetic toward someone and actually taking action to affect change. Going that extra step is what integrates the power of empathy into how you live and how you relate to others. 

How Radical Empathy Can Make the World a Better Place

Anytime people can get out of their bubble and get a glimpse of how other people live, work, think, love and struggle, the world gets slightly better. When we can relate to each other as humans worthy of respect and happiness, we can start tearing down the walls that separate us. 

Here are three key ways why radical empathy works:

Through understanding other people’s experiences

Most of us are stuck in the habitual day to day of our lives without giving enough thought to other people’s experiences and hardships (or our own good fortune to be born in a particular country, or in a family with a comfortable amount of money or with a certain skin color.) When we start taking our own lives for granted, or put the focus on what we don’t have, we have little time or energy for understanding other people’s experiences.

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Radical empathy calls us to get out of the tunnel vision that too many of us live with and widen the lens to try to understand what others are going through. This enables us to see the world as it is and realize that not everyone enjoys the same comforts and privileges we do. This awareness is the first step. 

Through understanding how other people see the world

Next, getting a sense of how other people view the world, as well as why they have a particular take on various social issues, can further expand our perspectives and worldviews. Understanding why people feel the way they do about particular issues can help us realize new ways of looking at the world, or make clear why people still cling to certain biases. It is the next step toward being able to better grasp a person’s emotional and cultural experience.

Through taking concrete action to make change

Radical empathy isn’t just a feeling, it’s an action. It’s not enough to just feel for someone, or for a group of people, and wish that things were different. Radical empathy is using those feelings of compassion (or even anger) to fuel you toward making things different, in whatever way you can. 

How You Can Cultivate Radical Empathy

While the term “radical empathy” has roots in the social justice movement, this idea can be applied to any part of your life—your relationships especially. These relationships are a good place to start cultivating this superpower so you can become someone who can really understand other people and truly make a difference in others’ lives. Starting in your own circle and then widening the lens can lead to an empathy revolution. 

Here are small ways to start right now:

Swap sympathy for empathy

Esteemed social scientist and author Brené Brown has a great quote to help tell the difference between sympathy and empathy. She says, “sympathy is feeling for someone, while empathy is feeling with them.” While sympathy evokes pity or feeling sorry for someone, empathy is the act of making someone’s pain your pain. Sympathy positions the person who’s hurting as the other. Empathy brings people together. 

Try to understand other people’s perspectives without judgment

It can be difficult at times but it’s important to try to remain open and try to empathize with how other people see the world—especially if you don’t agree with someone’s point of view. With everything going on in the world these days, surely there is someone close to you who doesn’t have the same opinions as you on a number of topics. Instead of closing yourself off to conversations about these things, try to practice empathy so that you can find understanding and connection. 

Be vulnerable to find connection

Speaking of connection: Try not to run from someone else’s pain by minimizing it. For instance, if someone close to you talks about a hurtful comment another person made to them (or about them), running from pain would be trying to fix the situation by assuring them that they must have misunderstood or that the comment wasn’t that bad.

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To truly empathize, it’s important to sit with someone in their pain and ask them what they need, not minimize their experience. This takes vulnerability. If you feel a little uncomfortable then you’re doing it right. 

Start With Yourself

Before you can truly cultivate radical empathy that will change the world, you need to practice empathy on yourself. This not only means finding compassion for yourself, your experience and your worldview but also digging deep into your biases and where you could stand to be more vulnerable in order to deepen your relationships.

Now, more than ever, we need people who are willing to be the change they wish to see in the world, to reference the famous Gandhi quote. It’s going to take all hands on deck to truly heal but radical empathy is a strong strategy for getting there. 


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