What are barriers to empathy?

Written by dan harkins
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What are barriers to empathy?
Any number of things could be holding back the urge to be empathetic. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

The need for empathy arises in every life, all through most days. Just as often, barriers occur that keep us from being as empathetic as we could be. A doctor or mechanic may be pressed for time while delivering news to a patient or customer. A counsellor may be learning about a new client's experiences, while struggling to understand that person's unique point-of-view. Good listeners attempt to surmount the many barriers to empathy that litter the road to true understanding.

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Lack of Time, Energy

One of the chief barriers to developing empathetic responses in everyday conversation is the perception of time restraints. According to the National Institutes of Health, one of the identified barriers to empathy for physicians is anxiety stemming from the time crunch and faltering energy. However, the NIH also recognises that a good way to counter this is to give each patient a minute or two at the beginning of each visit to express concerns, which will encourage an open empathetic dialogue and actually make the meeting more efficient. This can translate to any relationship, giving the person to whom you're speaking a chance to fully express himself right away.


Sheila Bennett, a professor of psychology and educational technology at Troy University, identifies several barriers to empathy in her "Using Empathy in Counseling" presentation. These barriers relate to the differences we exhibit, including gender, race and age differences. These types of characteristics can alter a person's perception of others, regardless of whether it's warranted. Sweeping generalisation are almost invariably not empathetic. More concretely, not understanding someone's language and its colloquialisms also can obscure opportunities to express empathy.

Bad Feelings

Preconceived negative feelings about another person will create a sizeable barrier to developing an empathetic relationship. Treatment or client relationships exhibit a different dynamic than the everyday, back-and-forth of relationships; they require the doctor, counsellor or business person to swallow hard feelings about past experiences with each particular patient. Without a reason to be empathetic, negative emotions can become an even greater barrier, causing many people to simply retreat or even attack.


Other roadblocks to empathy creep into our lives, making it difficult to appreciate the feelings of others. Professionals often have a tendency to detach themselves from any emotional elements of their jobs, instead objectifying many of the people who pass in and out of their lives. "The Permanente Journal," a quarterly journal from Kaiser Permanente, offers a fall 2003 article by Dr. James T. Hardee called "An Overview of Empathy." It describes empathy as a "balanced curiosity leading to a deeper understanding of another human." It is often more difficult to develop interest in an object.

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