Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. 

fake empathy and solution-focused leadership

 “it’s incredibly difficult to show empathy to people you really don’t know. And interviewing them for an hour and giving them an Amazon gift card doesn’t constitute knowing them.

It’s also difficult to show empathy for someone who “isn’t a part of your tribe,” who doesn’t look like you or act like you. This is why you have to engineer empathy. And why you need diverse design teams to do it.” – Stop Bastardizing Design with False Empathy

When you can empathize with me, you feel what I’m feeling within my frame of reference. When you and I have that deep understanding, what is the purpose of a conversation, design thinking project, brainstorming, or even teamwork? 


Stating that you are starting with empathy is like sending thoughts and prayers. 

fake empathy and accepting the person

… rather than saying that misunderstandings are ‘inherent in conversation,’ our view is that misunderstandings constitute conversations and that misunderstandings make conversation possible. That is, if we simply (radically) understand each other, we would have nothing to talk about.” – Steve de Shazer – Making Numbers talk 


I’ve generally find empathy difficult (my wife often says I have little empathy). And as a white 44-year male, who has had many privileges, I cannot comprehend how I can empathize with someone whose life experience is different from mine. 

In my 20’s I was an educator of at-risk and adjudicated youth for Clemson University (we ran alternative schools and some partnerships with the Dept of Justice for youth). Hearing their stories and meeting the families, I never felt empathy. I cognitively could not imagine or feel what they are going through or “put myself in their shoes.” Also, if I could put myself in their shoes, it would still not be their experience; it would be my experience in their shoes. 

Empathy has always felt like a vapid response. That marketers and inept leadership fabricate to behave as-if, they are not trying to manipulate, influence, or convince you to buy something. 


Your empathy can be helpful and not necessary. 

In some cases, empathy takes the focus of the other person and brings it to you. When empathy is on how you handled or felt during a similar situation, you are not respecting the person and their views. You are emotionally hijacking their story to show your understanding, therefore disrespecting their personhood and lived experience. 

With solution-focused (SOLVEDcards) work, the focus is on the person, their words, their truth. Not my interpretation or empathy of their truth – I have no business in their shoes. Listening and deeply respecting their agency and lived life in their experience. 

With solution-focus, we focus on the language listening for description elements of progress, what’s better, indicators of how they are strong or learned through their experience. We listen for description to reflect to the person (their words) instead of empathizing and hijacking the person with our lived experience. 

In place of empathy, accept the conversation as all there is, and there is nothing behind or beneath the conversation. “In the conversation, look to notice differences so that these noticed differences can be put to work. Then the noticed differences can make a difference.” – Steve de Shazer