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80% of People Aren't Empathetic. How to Be Successful Anyway

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

20% of people are predisposed to empathy.

Research shows that only 20% of people are inclined to empathy. And I must confess I am not one of them. As a design thinker, my wiring is one of ideation and problem-solving. Likewise, thoughts, not emotions consume much of my brain space. Myers Briggs would classify me as a thinker, not a feeler. Admittedly to my determent in relationships at times. Despite decades of focused devotion to personal growth, I'm still not very empathetic. With 50% of the population as thinkers, and 80% not empathetic, perhaps you can relate.

Similarly, it's likely why you were attracted to business and not drawn to fields like counseling, health care, or charity. For me, it's quite easy to understand why the statistics are what they are. One of the first facts I learned out of college in my sales training revealed the reason. If we see every person as wearing "WIIFM" written across their forehead - we would be successful. WIIFM, meaning what's in it for me. Thus, looking out for our self-interest is standard wiring for humans. In particular, most people equals around 80%. While there isn't scientific evidence to prove that we are born selfish, it's apparent it gets embedded in us pretty early through our environment.

80% of people are not empathetic.

As a result, (for 80% at least) the majority of time is consumed with our self-interests. And, considering the purpose of design thinking interviews, it is totally about a business's self-interest. Sure businesses start because we see an unmet need and want to meet the needs of the customer. But ultimately, we do it for the profit and the positive impact it makes in our lives and others. Honestly, staying in business and being successful is the goal. If it were only about meeting customer needs, then we would have started a charity and not a company. In short, company success is in finding the balance of well-being. In the long run,

A business is successful when it effectively balances the well-being of its own needs with the well-being of the clients' needs. -Karen Zeigler

How an episode of 48 Hours showed me empathy didn't matter

As an illustration, let me share a TV watching experience I had recently. Notably, if you peeked into my private life, you might be surprised to find I watch a lot of cold case, murder mystery type shows. Even in my most chilled state, watching TV in bed, my brain wants to solve problems. Probably nerdy (or just plain weird), I get excited when I've solved the case before the show has unfolded the storyline. Surprisingly, as I settled in to watch the latest 48 hours, I found it wasn't their usual murder mystery content. Instead, it was a documentary of the 2018 hostage incident in a Trader Joe's Grocery. The host interviewed three hostages. Reluctantly, I watched the show. It was viewing the interviews through the lens of design thinking that changed my mind about the priority of empathy.

Three people, three different responses

In this case, 48 hours interviewed three people. One gentleman huddled in a storage closet in the back of the store with twenty other patrons. Much of his time was spent crying and texting loved ones. Expressing empathy toward him was easy. Indeed, I could empathize with his feelings of fear. The second, a lady who was upfront with the shooter during the 3-hour ordeal walked away pissed. She shared in her interview that after the shooter surrendered, as she was exiting the building, she whispered: "f--- you." However, I found it difficult to empathize (Brene' Brown calls it sharing the feeling with someone) with her. If I had just escaped with my life, f--- you wouldn't be my first thought as I'm walking away.

The third, a lady also upfront with the shooter, didn't seem to express fear or anger but total compassion - like crazy, other-worldly, compassion. She single-handedly convinced the shooter to surrender. At one point, she even tells the shooter (who killed the manager by the way) he wasn't a bad person. She touched her hand to his heart and told him he wasn't a bad person, that he was just scared and had forgotten who he was. Honestly, in my opinion, she represents the higher self we all wish to exhibit. However, I would say my feeling in connection with her was one more of envy than empathy.

Can I empathize with everyone? Does it matter that I don't?

Consequently, I could not empathize with all three hostages. I understood the emotion they experienced, but I could not empathize (feel with them). With this in mind, I made up a pretend design thinking scenario to see if my lack of empathy would affect the outcome. Hypothetical, but I think you'll see the point.

Let us assume for a minute that we were conducting these interviews as a Crisis Management Company looking to improve training for customers like Trader Joe's. Having identified three different reactions to a hostage situation would garner us a lot of information. Human emotions run the gamut in a crisis. And it would be essential to provide training in a way that would increase awareness of that fact. An employee surprised by unexpected hostage reactions would be one surprise we could address in this stressful situation.

But is knowing one reacted in fear, one in anger, and the other in compassion enough? Or do I have to feel those emotions with them? Can I (Do I) have to empathize? We've already established I can't empathize with all three. But I also believe it doesn't matter. Is understanding more important than empathizing?

Does greater understanding lead to empathy?

Perhaps you are thinking, but we don't have enough information to understand why they had the feeling they did. To clarify, I know design thinkers, like me, noticed there wasn't enough why's asked of the interviewees. Why was he fearful, she angry, or she compassionate? So for our hypothetical case, I'll make up the why's

  1. He was afraid because it was a frightening situation and that's what humans do in scary situations. He had an argument with his partner this morning and was upset that he might not be able to apologize and reconcile with the one he loved.

  2. She was angry because she was missing a special moment at her daughter's school. Or perhaps because it reminded her of her abusive father or ex-husband. She hated that feeling of abuse and was pissed she had to experience it again.

  3. The compassionate woman provided a story of a spiritual experience. Or perhaps a time where she was in a bad place, and someone had shown her compassion.

Perhaps it's just me, but those details help me understand their emotions better, but it doesn't cause me to empathize. It did not make it easier for me to share those feelings with them. In fact, in the hypothetical Crisis management training, those details didn't add much information. It confirmed the uncertainty of emotions in crisis, but I can't think of much else. However, it is essential to gather all those details before we decide their relevance.

Understanding not empathy is vital.

The real question is understanding enough? If I'm a customer providing feedback on a product or service what's more important? To be heard and understood? Or to be understood and share the same felt experience (empathy)? Personally, when I'm the customer I don't need a business to be (insert feeling) with me. I need the business to hear me, understand me, and seek to fulfill the underlying need. Ultimately I want you to remain calm, solve my problem or meet my needs. Frankly, I turn to my spouse, friends, or a counselor for my shared feelings. All and all, understanding my feelings and why I feel them is more important than you feeling them with me.

Consequently, if you fall in the 80% of people who are not empathetic, don't worry. I believe I've made a good case that empathy isn't just challenging at times; it's not even necessary. From a business/client relationship, the most important thing is to connect with the client. Ensuring they are heard and understood. When this happens, we can accomplish both the well-being of the client and the well-being of the company.

Three skills to successful interviews even when you're not empathetic

The critical ingredient for an interviewer (or any relationship for that matter) is that both parties be engaged and fully present. While there are a lot of factors that go into engaging interviews, I want to finish with three skills for being fully present. Likely, whether you're caught in thought (a thinker like I can be) or consumed in self-interest (not empathetic), you are also not fully present. Being fully present, also known as mindfulness, is a crucial ingredient to how you and your customer meet the interview experience. In detail, there are three skills (attitudes really) that attribute to mindfulness: kindness, curiosity, and acceptance.

Together these three attitudes help you be present for your and your user's experience. They will also counter tendencies of self-interest and biases. Hugh Bryne, the author of The Here and Now Habit, explains these attitudes as:

Kindness will counter negative or judging patterns of thought and open space for you to be able to experience challenging sensations, emotions and mind states. When you bring curiosity to your experience, you’ll no longer be swept up in or so identified with your experience. Being curious will allow you to step out of your mind’s story and narrative and into your direct experience. And acceptance will invite you to meet your experience wholeheartedly and without resistance. When you accept your experience fully, you’ll no longer be caught up in it or defined by it.”

While his writing is about our experience, you can see how it applies to our experience with another person. Honestly, we don't want to identify (aka empathize) with the person's experience and be swept away into their emotions. Instead, we want to be fully present to witness the experience so that we can hear and understand. And ultimately so that we can solve their problem or meet their needs. And more good news - according to Klimecki et al. 2013 these three practices also increase empathy.


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