Article by Steve Harvey, Director Impromptu

We all know what empathy is, right?

It’s walking in others’ shoes. Sitting with their experiencing. Appreciating their perspective. Endeavouring to see the world from another’s hilltop.


So why is it, across the hundreds of people I work with each year, from across different organisational communities, in all walks of life, at all levels, I see so many people struggling with it, so much, so often? Almost universally I experience participants, to varying degrees, handicapped by their assumptions, prejudices, unconscious biases, agendas, vested interests, and mental models. What is it that prevents them, so frequently, from stepping outside of themselves, and into the uncertainty of another’s paradigm?

As I reflect on what I have learned, coming to the end of a postgraduate diploma in counselling psychology at Keele University, where I have engaged with my own journey of discovery, to access and embrace this Rogerian core condition of empathy, is that it is really difficult.

Too often we think of empathy as a repertoire of skills, associated with active listening, paraphrasing, leaving silence, open ended questions and reflecting feelings. But empathy is much more than this. It is an attitude, a humanistic philosophy, a principled ethic, a state of mind, a desire to deeply know (ourselves and others), a way of being.

And, therein, lies the conundrum. To truly empathise, it seems, we need to find peace with ourselves, to trust, to let go, to find inner harmony, to quieten the voices of doubt that prevent us from being, rather than doing, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and that, I believe, requires a degree of self-acceptance that few attain.

So, being empathic, perhaps, isn’t about striving to achieve the unachievable – to understand and know another – but more a question of working on ourselves, to attain that elusive self-acceptance, in order that we build the confidence and self-belief to demonstrate the commitment to travel alongside another, to show the desire to access their experiencing of the world, in order to connect and be with them in that connection. And that requires us actively exploring and confronting our conditions of worth, our demons, our self-doubt, our lack of confidence, our anxieties, our insecurity. It requires us to stop hiding from ourselves.