The Science of Empathy

Why you can’t fake it

Liz Garrett
4 min readFeb 17, 2022


Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

Empathy is a tough one, so let me help you crack the code.

Empathy ≠ I know how you feel.

Empathy ≠ I can imagine how I would feel in your situation.

Empathy ≠ I am making sympathetic faces and sounds so you know I know how you feel.

Empathy = I feel what you feel.

The capacity for empathy is built into your nervous system. It is part of your brain’s function for survival in community with others. As your social-emotional sense organ, your brain is equipped to pick-up sensory information, below your conscious awareness, about threat or degree of affiliation from others.

Here are some of the reasons empathy is important:

  • You’re able to learn from those around you by understanding their situation
  • You can improve your performance at work by navigating conflict
  • When you listen, you become better at problem-solving
  • It can change how you approach your work
  • Observing people helps you read them more effectively
  • (List obtained from <

As a competency of Emotional Intelligence, empathy is a skill a leader can develop. To activate and strengthen your built-in psycho-biological empathetic circuitry, work to develop the two building blocks of Empathy: presence and connection.


Have you ever been on a call and you know the other person is multi-tasking? They may deny, but you just know. Here’s the tell: special mirror neurons in your brain pick up signals below your consciousness and make you feel what the other person is doing. That felt-sense overrides their denial, doesn’t it? We know when someone is present and when they aren’t.

Attention is a spotlight you control. It can be fully on yourself (self-absorption), or fully on something outside yourself (weak boundaries), or somewhere in between. Presence is the ability to hold attention on Self and Other simultaneously, receiving sensory information from Self and Other, and knowing the difference between what is Self…



Liz Garrett

Exploring whole-being well-being in the workplace. Sharing fun and free resources at