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Leslie Hale

Mar 29, 2024


min read

The Inner Workings of Empathy

What happens to you when you empathize with someone? How does it work? How does it change you?

The Inner Workings of Empathy

The Global Impact Collective embraces design thinking collaboration and human-centered design as a part of our process. At the core of both innovation practices is empathy. By grounding ourselves in an understanding of the realities of the other person’s experience, we can get a better understanding of what they are thinking, feeling, and doing so that we design appropriate solutions. Empathy enables designers to create solutions that are user-centric rather than aesthetic or technical. Many complex problems require empathy to fully define the problem. When users feel seen and heard, they feel valued, which can build a strong connection and even brand loyalty. Taking an empathetic approach allows designers to consider the diverse needs and backgrounds of the people interacting with the product or service, enabling more inclusive design.

As a lifelong nerd, who always wants to know how things work, made me want to understand empathy at a deeper level. What connections are being made? Does the person experiencing empathy change because of those feelings? Are there personal benefits to being empathetic? What is the neuroscience of empathy? Here is what I have learned so far: 

Psychologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists are continuing to study empathy because it is a complex process that involves multiple parts of the brain. There are two main types of empathy that are combined, as follows:

1.      Cognitive empathy - grasping another person’s perspective.

a. Understanding more deeply what someone feels and thinks.

2.      Affective empathy - having an emotional sharing component.

a. Feeling what another person is feeling. 

b. Then, feeling concern by the other person’s plight.

c. Finally, feeling compassion for the other person, which can trigger helping behavior.[1] 

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman posit that the final step in affective empathy is actually a separate type of empathy called compassionate empathy, arguing that moving from feelings to being compelled to take an action to help someone are two distinctly different things.   

Neuroscience has been exploring how the brain functions to enable people to understand and share the emotions and experiences of others, involving both cognitive and affective components. Here are some of the top insights from Neuroscience on empathy: 

  • Empathy may be hardwired in humans.[2]

  • Almost 98% of humans feel empathy for others. (The remaining percentage are people with antisocial personality disorder.)[3] 

  • According to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, although empathy increases with training, levels may decrease over time after training, suggesting the importance of ongoing skill development. 

  • Neuroscientists refer to the process of empathizing in the brain as simultaneously “bottom up” and “top down,” or as having an emotional response to stimulus combined with cognitive evaluation. And here are the neural mechanisms underlying empathy: 

o   Mirror Neurons: These neurons fire off when an individual performs an action or even when they observe someone else performing the same action. Essentially the neurons facilitate understanding someone’s actions, intentions, and emotions by simulating them in their own brain. 

o   Empathy Network: Neuroimaging studies have identified a network of brain regions involved in empathy including the anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, and temporoparietal junction. The anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex are particularly important for emotional empathy, while the medial prefrontal cortex, and temporoparietal junction are involved in cognitive empathy and perspective-taking.

o   Empathy and Theory of Mind: Theory of mind refers to the ability to attribute mental states—such as beliefs, desires, and intentions—to oneself and others. Empathy and theory of mind are closely related processes, and both involve the ability to understand and interpret the internal experiences of others. Neuroimaging studies suggest that overlapping brain regions are involved in both empathy and theory of mind.

  • Development of empathy begins in childhood and adolescence and is influenced by both genetics and environment. Brain imaging studies have found that adolescents show increased activation in empathy-related brain regions compared to children, suggesting that development of empathic abilities is ongoing during this period.

  • There is some recent research on empathy suggesting that people may be becoming less empathic. That makes intuitive sense when you think about how society is increasingly divisive and how distracted we are by our digital devices, you can see how we are lessening our attention on others and how they might be feeling. 

Understanding the inner workings of empathy, and how we are wired to engage in it, reinforces for me the personal importance of looking for opportunities to use, practice, and build empathy.  Now, in Human Centered Design and design thinking, empathy is vital to creating solutions that are truly meeting the needs of users, for identifying unmet needs, generating useful insights, and building trust and connection with users.

What are some other benefits of building our empathy skills?

1.       Increases social connections overall. The pandemic demonstrated how detrimental isolation is for humans and empathy in your daily life will build human connections. 

2.      Strengthens emotional intelligence. Empathy encourages us to be more appreciative of other people’s perspectives, encouraging acceptance and open mindedness. 

3.     Reduces prejudice and bias. It can help mitigate prejudice and bias by promoting understanding and acceptance of diverse perspectives and experiences

4.      Promotes cooperation and collaboration. When individuals empathize with their team members, they are more likely to offer help, provide support, and work towards common goals, contributing to a more productive and harmonious environment.

5.      Resolves conflicts. Empathetic individuals are better equipped to navigate conflicts and disagreements constructively. 

6.      Enhances the quality of relationships. By paying attention and responding to other people’s needs, you build trust and can deepen your relationships. 

7.      Builds leadership skills. By being empathetic you improve your capacity to communicate well with others and can inspire workers to do their best.  

Overall, empathy serves as a fundamental building block for healthy relationships, effective communication, emotional well-being, and societal progress, ultimately enriching people's lives in myriad ways. Nearly everyone has the capacity to be empathetic and the more you practice empathy, the better at it you can become.

What I enjoy about collaborating in Design Thinking workshops is that it is a way to invite people to be more empathetic. To consciously connect with what someone else may be thinking, seeing, doing, and feeling. 

If you would like to learn more about human centered design or introduce your team to design thinking and empathy building, please get in touch.


You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” – John Steinbeck


[1] Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Hodges and Myers, (2007)

[2] "Human brains are hardwired for empathy, friendship." James Coan, University of Virginia, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal (August 2013)

[3] Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, Roman Krznaric, (2015)

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  • Writer's pictureJames Bernard

The Revolving Door Problem: Internal Alignment is Critical Before Pursuing Partnerships

How many times have you visited a partner organization only to find out that others from your organization have just met with the same people? It happens all the time. Several years ago, I was waiting in the lobby of a well-known government institution waiting for a meeting I’d scheduled to talk about potential partnerships. I looked up and was surprised to see two colleagues from my organization leaving the building at the same time – figuratively I was going in the revolving door as they were coming out! I flagged them down and learned that they’d just met with a team that was adjacent to the one I was waiting to see.

This posed several obvious problems. First, we potentially wasted people’s time because we hadn’t coordinated our schedules, which is not a great way to engender confidence and trust with the partner. Second, because we weren’t coordinated on our messaging and pitch, we risked sowing confusion about what we could really bring to the table, therefore weakening our negotiating position. Finally, being disorganized damaged our reputation as an organization that could be relied upon to deliver on a partnership.

In that case, my colleagues and I quickly recognized that we were putting our partnerships and organizational reputation at risk. We compared notes in the lobby and salvaged our relationships by building a more unified approach for future meetings. No real damage was done, and in fact, we created a stronger partnership by working together.

The Revolving Door Problem is extremely common in big organizations, even if you don’t literally run into colleagues in the lobby. I recently met a sustainability director who had been approached by no fewer than three representatives from the same NGO about developing a partnership. He was lamenting to me that he wasn’t sure which team had the lead or should be relied upon to deliver on a partnership.

The challenge often begins with a lack of role clarity or ownership of key relationships with prospective partners. Responsibility for social impact partnerships is often distributed through a large organization at both the HQ and field levels. At a company, it might sit in the CSR group, a marketing team, a product team, or procurement organization. At an NGO, it can sit with individual project teams, in business development, or as part of a strategy function. At government agencies, responsibility could be shared across any number of offices at HQ or the field.

So, how can organizations avoid the Revolving Door Problem, or at least minimize it?

First, internal coordination is key. Before anyone at an organization engages with external partners, it’s critical to have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve through a partnership, how that partnership would advance the objectives of your organization and the partner, and who should approach prospective partners.

Second, make sure you have a thorough understanding of the organization(s) you are approaching. What partnerships have they done in the past and how did they originate? Are there different divisions or business units within the partner that might have different goals in a partnership? Who have been the champions of cross-sector partnerships at the organization?

Finally, map out what your organization can bring to a partnership. Determine the key assets that might have value to another organization – these could be expertise, access to stakeholders, channels, credibility, funding, or content. Decide how these assets can be complimentary to the partner, and how they might be valued. Is there a timeline for execution of the partnership, and how would you see it being managed? How are you going to measure your results?

Some larger organizations have developed a partnership account management structure, similar to what you might see in a fundraising, business development, or sales function. In this model, it’s the responsibility of each account manager to have a complete understanding of prospective partners, their motivations, competitors, industry dynamics, and operations. In some cases, an account manager may handle several partners from the same sector, industry or region. In other cases, when the partner is large or complex (and if staffing allows), a single account manager may be assigned to a single organization. All communications to prospective partners should – initially at least – be run through the account manager and all explorations and meetings should be tracked in a Customer Relationship Management tool like Salesforce or HubSpot.

There’s no question that cross-sector collaborations are challenging and complex, especially if more than two partners are involved. But one way to build a foundation for a strong partnership is to avoid the Revolving Door Problem in the first place.


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