Imagination and Empathy – Tools to Decrease Division and Conflict

Division and conflict over a wide variety of topics and issues are a reality of life these days in the U.S. and across the globe. It truly is like we see different realities. What’s happened? Why are we so unable to understand others’ situations and perspectives? Could things improve if we expand our ability to imagine and empathize with other’s situations and perspectives?

Author and clergyman Stephen Mattson makes a powerful statement about this:

“When you can’t imagine, you can’t empathize, understand, or relate with the actions, struggles, pain, suffering, persecution, and trials of others — you become apathetic, unmoved, stoic, and inactive….

When you can’t imagine, you can’t celebrate, appreciate, admire, and joyfully love others. You disconnect yourself from humanity.

Imagination leads to empathy, empathy leads to understanding, understanding leads to action, action leads to experience, and experience leads to wisdom — which leads to even more imagination.”

Imagining someone’s situation that is outside our personal experience with all our senses breaks down barriers. When you imagine what it is like for that person, what they are dealing with, you become more empathetic and understanding. And that opens doors to so much more.

Understanding Empathy

So what exactly is empathy? How is it different from sympathy? I found this compilation to be helpful:

“Sympathy and empathy are both related to feelings, but they have different meanings and expressions. Sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, or a recognition of what they are going through. Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another, understanding and experiencing their emotions or situation from their perspective, or using your experience to relate to their experience. Empathy is usually preferred over sympathy when dealing with difficult situations, because people need to feel understood rather than pitied.” Summarized from 5 sources and the web, Bing Search engine

Imagination is important to empathy because it takes you beyond your own thoughts and experiences.  As we expand our ability to imagine and empathize, we open our minds and hearts to new things.

Let’s break down empathy a bit more. There are 3 different types of empathy – emotional, cognitive and compassionate empathy with problem solving. The last is actually a combination of the first two.

Here’s one way to describe the difference between the first two types –

“Cognitive empathy is an attempt to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, while emotional empathy is screaming in pain when someone else steps on a nail.” Source:

Emotional empathy most often occurs when someone experiences something you’ve been through before. You re-live that situation and its pain with that person. Even if you haven’t experienced the same thing but have a relationship with the person, emotional empathy is possible. That can be extended to others beyond your circle of friends who are dealing with similar things.

Cognitive empathy is a conscious effort to understand the perspective of someone else. You relate to what someone else is going through even if you’ve never experienced it yourself. You aren’t inserting your personal point of view. There’s no bias on your part and you’re not trying to insert your own experiences. You may happily help another person and might even understand the point of view of an individual. You don’t necessarily identify with what caused the problem in the first place but respond with empathy.

Compassionate Empathy combines the emotional and cognitive and goes farther. It means looking at a situation and trying to get at the cause. You analyze the underlying reasons why something happened, as well as the effects.

With this ability, you can demonstrate to a person that you understand where they’re coming from to the degree possible. You don’t offer any bias or prejudice. You may even offer an alternative way of thinking or some insight that helps the person in need.

Expanding Our Abilities and Impact

Empathy in any form makes the world a better place. It’s selfless and caring. It is also a powerful tool to apply in many situations in our fractured society and world. We are fortunate to have resources to help us expand our ability to imagine and empathize.

TED’s series “How to Be a Better Human” includes this article: 5 exercises to help you build more empathy | ( It includes 5 exercises to help build your empathy from Dr. Jamil Zaki, Psychology professor at Stanford University. Dr. Zaki believes we all have a responsibility to cultivate empathy in “the same way that we try to take care of our bodies or of our mental health…building empathy is a way to take care of our social health.”

I recommend Dr. Zaki’s book, The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki

Another resource was written specifically for educators but provides so much great content for everyone. Preventing Polarization: 50 Strategies for Teaching Kids About Empathy, Politics, and Civic Responsibility  by Michelle Blanchet and Brian Deters

Each of us can make a difference if we make the choice and seek out the tools and opportunities to expand our ability to imagine and empathize.

I’m Carol Brusegar, author, photographer and curator of information. My focus is on gathering and writing on topics that enhance all our lives – regardless of our age. Topics include health and wellness, personal development, innovation and creativity, and a variety of helpful, practical tools and practices. I have a special interest in helping people over 50 years of age to create their 3rd Age – the next stage of their lives – to be the best it can be. Visit my Amazon Author Page to find my published books:



The Power of Empathy – “I Feel You”

Empathy“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself. – Mohsin Hamid


Perhaps you have heard people use the phrase “I feel you” as they listen to some heartfelt sharing from another. Perhaps you have used that shorthand expression for EMPATHY.

The dictionary definition for empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” That definition goes on to include that you can have this connection and understanding even when others have not fully explained their situation to you. In other words, you are tuned into the plights of others, and you can react in ways that show you understand what they are going through even when you don’t know all the details.

I can’t think of many other things more needed in our world today, full of fractures and divisions, than empathy. Clearly there are people with stories that need to be heard but even more important is to be able to genuinely say “I feel you” in response to them. And it goes beyond that. It’s part of a cycle so beautifully described in these words by Stephen Mattson:

“Imagination leads to empathy, empathy leads to understanding, understanding leads to action, action leads to experience, and experience leads to wisdom – which leads to even more imagination.”

Mattson notes that the cycle begins and ends with imagination because “When you can’t imagine, you can’t empathize, understand, or relate with the actions, struggles, pain, suffering, persecution, and trials of others — you become apathetic, unmoved, stoic, and inactive.”

The impact of our ability to empathize with others’ situations and experiences is huge. It begins with those closest to us and can ripple beyond. Can you imagine the impact if more of the decision-making at all levels were based on conscious efforts to imagine and empathize with the situations of all the people affected in a given situation? The lack of that is clear to us as we look around. As Charles M. Blow has said, “One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.”

Practicing imagination and empathy also supports our own emotional and social wellness. How can being empathetic make you a happier, healthier, more well-rounded person?

You Can Be More Accepting of Others

When you have empathy, you recognize that everyone is entitled to their own experiences, that we are all different, and that you cannot change others. Acceptance of others’ differences, views, feelings, and thoughts means you do not judge them for these differences but instead are empathetic to how those differences impact their lives and experiences.

Empathy allows you to see others as unique instead of wrong, to value their perspectives, and to appreciate what you might be able to learn from others.

You Can Give Up Trying to Control Others’ Feelings

It is not possible to tell someone else how to feel, or to control others’ reactions. Everyone has a right to their own perspectives and emotions, and when you have empathy, you are able to see and appreciate this. This acceptance of others’ emotions is the key to empathy, and when you develop acceptance and empathy toward others, you have mastered a vital life skill.

Your Relationships Will Improve

When you have empathy, you learn how to treat other people with the care and compassion you wish others would use when they interact with you. Empathetic people also work to understand and respond to the needs of others, which they, in turn, will likely reciprocate with you.

Empathy helps you deal more effectively with interpersonal conflict, which means there will be less friction and strife with those you care for, and you can even learn how to better motivate those with whom you live and work.

You Can Share More Fully in Others’ Joy

Empathy does not have to be limited to understanding the challenges and turmoil of others. Empathy can also include understanding and responding to the joys and good events in others’ lives.

Learning to be happy for others is actually a skill you need to practice, as our brains are hard-wired to respond to others’ distress but naturally do not respond as strongly to others’ happiness. But, learning to do this not only helps you connect with others more fully, but it also can enhance your own perspective on your joys and blessings in life.

Final Thoughts

Empathy is your link to yourself as well as other people. Going far beyond sympathy, empathy is our ability to have the “I feel with” experiences regularly. Through imagination and personal experience, we are able to relate to others on a deeper level.

This skill is one that should be cultivated throughout one’s life, as it is essential for personal development. There are many books on the topic to explore, including some for children. Can you imagine the long term effect of having truly empathetic people in charge of our organizations and government. Cultivating this in ourselves and the younger generations can be a path to long term change.

Books on Empathy for Adults and Children