Humanness and Empathy

One of the most important parts of interpersonal communication is the ability to empathize with another. This is sometimes hard to do because we don’t understand how a person could say or act a certain way. We want to say, “I can’t believe you would.…” That does not help the situation.

But I believe one of the ways to combat that is to see the humanness in saying or doing the wrong thing. If we can somehow realize and show that we are human and make mistakes, or even that we have done the same thing when we were younger or more inexperienced, we are more likely to empathize.

For example, in Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone, the founder of Twitter, Stone refers to actor Harrison Ford’s popularity. He believes Ford is beloved because we can all relate to his humanness, even though he usually plays the hero. Stone says,  “Traditionally, heroes are fearless, strong, and pretty much bulletproof.”  But then he points out that Ford is not that way. Whenever he is in a difficult situation he looks either scared or like he’s thinking, “Oh, God, I can’t believe I have to do this now.”

As Stone writes, “In Raiders of the Lost Ark, faced with a pit of writhing vipers, that he has no choice but to pass through, he famously says, ‘Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?’ There’s no bravado. The hero he gives us is a regular guy…and now he is in a snake pit.”

This human aspect is why my favorite professional athlete is Mike Leake, pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. He is the number three starter and in five years with the Reds he has won 53 games. However, he does not look like a professional athlete. He is 5 feet 10 inches tall and is slightly built. From a distance, he looks like he might be the batboy. He just goes about doing his job in a workman-like manner. His pitching style looks effortless.   His appearance and demeanor makes you think, “I could do that, too.”

While watching my three-month-old granddaughter,  I see that this is something you learn very young. This morning after she had spent much of an hour crying, flinging her arms and legs, and refusing to go to sleep, I sat her on my lap facing me. She stopped crying and just stared at me. I looked back at her and suddenly she gave me this little smile that seemed to say, “Remember, Papaw, I may be merely three months old, but I’m another human being with frustrations just like yours.”

The next time someone is telling you something that you simply cannot identify with, think about what it means to be human and to make mistakes. In a real sense, we are all working to get through the day and do the best we can. Let’s remember that is also true of other people as well as ourselves.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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