Empathy: Where Does it Come From? Why Does it Matter?

“This is a story about something that made an enormous difference in my life.” That’s how Mr. Minnis Ridenour describes a remarkable moment during a visit to Kyiv, Ukraine in 2005. At the time, Ridenour was Executive VP and Chief Operating Officer at Virginia Tech. He heard a member of his Methodist church talk about the church’s relief work in Ukraine. Minnis was moved by the man’s description of young children living on the streets of Kyiv, and soon made a visit there with other church members.

What he saw in Kyiv was distressing: children under the age of ten with no permanent homes, sniffing glue, being mistreated, some sexually abused. Minnis visited a facility where some of the homeless kids spent their daytimes; it was dark, sparse, with no cooking facilities. He and a few of the kids went out to pick up food for the kids who were there. It was a cold, snowy day, and one of the boys asked how he could get a cap like the one Minnis was wearing. Seeing that the boy had no head covering, Minnis took his Virginia Tech cap and gave it to the boy. A while later, as the snow kept falling, the boy gave it back to him, telling a translator who was with the group, “He needs it more than me.”

Minnis later recounted, “’He needs it more than me.’ Those six words touched me deeply.” When he returned home he sent 30 Virginia Tech caps to the facility where those boys spent their days. “I felt a calling because these kids’ needs were so great.” But he couldn’t act on that feeling while working at Tech.

So Minnis retired, giving him time to follow his passion. He and others convinced the members of the Blacksburg United Methodist Church (BUMC) to do something substantial for the Kyiv children. During a 3-week period, they raised over $340,000 to buy and renovate a building in the city to house homeless boys. That money leveraged another $120,000. The result: the creation of the Spring of Life Family Center, which includes a variety of services for the boys, as well as a Methodist Church. (It provided services until Russia invaded Ukraine; now it’s used as a shelter to keep people safe from the bombings.)

Minnis and other members of his church have returned to the Kyiv center several times. On his most recent trip he and his party were going to a new facility for homeless boys when he noticed two young men walking toward the facility. One of them had blood on his face. When Minnis looked closely, he realized, “That’s the boy who returned my cap years ago!” The translator explained, “These people always know they have a home here when they need it.”

The Kyiv center was only the start of the BUMC members’ efforts. They also created an educational program which ordains young men, giving them the leadership skills to do social justice work – addressing poverty, providing health care and the like. And BUMC has opened a Methodist Academy in Africa, the first of three planned for that continent.

Where does empathy come from?

Sometimes it comes from our parents. That was true for Minnis Ridenour. “My parents instilled good values in us. My high school was one of the first to be integrated in the South. It caused huge havoc; in fact, the high school was bombed. Dad made a point of telling me, ‘I don’t want to ever hear you speak negatively about blacks. A black person has the same value you do, the same rights that you have.’”

Empathy can also develop from personal experiences that make a huge impact, which happened to FDR when he got polio. The only child of wealthy parents, he was handsome, athletic and charming. Then the disease hit at age 39. He began to meet people from different backgrounds while recuperating. Their struggles were his struggles, and that opened his mind and heart.

The Biblical character Joseph also learned empathy from a powerful event. He grew up as his father’s favorite, an arrogant young man who so angered his brothers that they threw him in a pit, expecting him to die. He survived but later landed in prison on false charges. When he noticed two prisoners who seemed downcast, he asked what was bothering them. It was the first time he’d ever shown concern for others. Like FDR, Joseph suddenly lost control over his life through no fault of his own, and met others in the same situation.

Grant Tate, an excellent executive coach and author, has helped clients develop empathy by asking them to identify someone so different from themselves that they can’t figure the person out. “Then I suggest the client try to get to know them; ask questions in the spirit of curiosity, and simply listen. It helps the client learn how to understand others.” Many psychologists also receive empathy training. During graduate school they’re taught to listen for and reflect their clients’ feelings, e.g., “That must have been really frustrating.”

Does empathy matter?

Ask people if it matters in their relationships with a spouse/partner, or close friends, and most will say, “Of course!” But empathy’s importance goes beyond intimate relationships.

Research studies show that patients who perceive their doctor as empathetic have more confidence in the doctor. And that results in greater adherence to their doc’s treatment recommendations, resulting in better health outcomes. Leading medical schools have been teaching empathy skills for years, with impressive results. Their graduates have lower rates of burn-out and their patients are more satisfied with their treatment.

And in the bottom-line corporate world, empathy is being recognized as a key skill. Managers who try to understand their employees’ needs and feelings are rated higher by their own managers – and by their employees – than managers who don’t show empathy.

Our parents can instill empathy, major life events can promote it, we can develop it by getting to know others very different from ourselves. And it makes a big difference in our work and personal lives. Empathy gives us insight. It allows us to develop connections with others and with causes larger than ourselves. Empathy led a homeless boy on the snowy streets of Kyiv to give a stranger his hat back, because “he needs it more than me.”

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]