Is empathy genetic or learnt?

Many years ago, a New Zealand search and rescue team heading to Japan (to help after a magnitude 9 earthquake and devastating tsunami) said they were pleased to be returning the favour because Japan had sent teams there in the aftermath of the Christchurch quake. More recently, while many were paralysed with grief the morning following the Paris attacks, a huge line of those willing to give blood formed across the street from yet another terrorist attack location, Le Petit Cambodge. A 69-year-old man named Mr Babey reminded the media of what French solidarity truly meant when he said, “They spill blood, we give blood.”

In times of crisis, we often see the most incredible displays of empathy but do we see enough of it in our day-to-day?  In addition, can we cultivate it or is it just the way we are born? This brings us back to the age-old nature versus nurture debate and the fact is that both are responsible. So, although some people seem to be born with higher degrees of empathy, we can indeed teach our children (and ourselves) to be more empathetic and create a more caring planet. Let’s take Key Steps this week and ensure that we…

Nurture the nature of empathy

  1. We do what we know. Did you know that children are naturally predisposed to empathy? For example, new-borns will cry when they hear other babies crying and toddlers will often spontaneously offer their blankets or other comfort items if they see that Mommy or Daddy looks upset. But this natural inclination – just like children’s natural inclination to learn language – requires key environmental exposures in order to develop. The most important of these is nurturing, responsive parenting. Babies whose needs for touch, comfort and soothing are not met regularly by their primary caregivers will have difficulty developing empathy – just as babies who aren’t exposed to speech will not be able to learn to speak.
  2. It starts with you. It is clear that empathy develops from the experience of empathy – not from suffering. We tend to think of empathy as something that comes from knowing what it’s like to feel pain but the origins of empathy are in shared nurture. This is why it’s impossible to spoil a child by responding to him or her – and why punishment doesn’t make bullies into nicer people. People are most empathetic when they feel calm and safe: if your own needs aren’t being met, it’s hard to think of someone else’s. Nurture yourself this week and if you need some support to find “me time” or manage stress through what has been a tough year so far for many, then join us for Effective Time & Stress Management on 10 & 11 August 2016. Email Tiffany to make your booking or enquire about us running an in-house programme for you and take Key Steps to

“be the difference that makes the difference

To learn how to overcome difficult times, set objectives, move your life forward and create the life you deserve, contact Tiffany and book one of our public workshops.




NOTE: The information in my blog may be freely shared and re-used in any online or offline publication, provided it is accompanied by the following credit line: This was written by Dr Sharon King Gabrielides, and originally appeared in her free bi-weekly  ‘Key Steps Food for Thought Blog’ available on the Key Steps website.

Dr Sharon King Gabrielides, EQ Expert, Founder and CEO

Sharon is a dynamic facilitator, speaker and executive coach with over 25 years’ experience in leadership development and organisational transformation. Her PhD thesis contributed a framework for holistic and sustainable leadership development that was published by Rutgers University in the USA. She is faculty of numerous business schools and highly sought-after by leading corporates because she works hand-in-hand with them to create sustainable results and long-term success. In 2020, Sharon was inducted into the Educators Hall of Fame, which is a lifetime achievement award, recognising excellence and her contribution to the field.

Sharon is one of only three women in South Africa to hold the title of Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) – the Oscar of the speaking industry. She is also a COMENSA Master Practitioner (CMP), a qualified Modern Classroom Certified Trainer (MCCT™) and an accredited Global Virtual Speaker. Sharon is also a registered Education, Training and Development Practitioner (ETDP), holds an Honours degree in Psychology and practices as an NLP master practitioner.

Most important to Sharon is that she has become known for her genuinely caring manner, practical and transformational approach, and for providing valuable tools and that allow people to take Key Steps to really… ‘be the difference that makes the difference.’