Radical Empathy Vs. Just Regular Empathy: What Is The Difference?

There’s a buzzword bouncing around social justice, mindfulness and mental health circles lately: “radical empathy”. It sounds intense and important. “Radical”, when attached to a general idea or technique, carries a certain exigence. But what does it really mean? When it comes to empathy, is there a difference between empathy and radical empathy?

I’ve asked people who use this term; I’ve scoured the internet; I even consulted AI about “radical empathy” and everything I’ve read and heard just matches my definition of empathy. The only difference I’ve encountered is some sources claim that what makes empathy “radical” is that when employed, a person implements empathy by attacking social injustices and promoting social change… but I will never use this term, and I suspect anyone versed in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) would also shy away from it.

Here’s why: Radical empathy claims to suspend judgement, value diversity, and take on different perspectives. I would say that empathy in general also encompasses these things. Then, radical empathy is also understood to mean taking action. I argue that empathizing with someone and taking action on their behalf are two completely separate things. In fact, this definition of “radical empathy” is conflating empathy with strategies. Through the lens of Nonviolent Communication, this doesn’t make sense.

In NVC, empathy is used to gain greater understanding about another party’s feelings and needs (or sometimes one’s own feelings and needs, which is called self-empathy). It is a tool that creates connection and trust – and that’s it. Empathy does not require extra action items; empathy itself is the action. The clarity and understanding gleaned from empathy can then be used to make requests and come up with strategies to meet needs. In NVC, this is a separate process. In fact, trying to “fix” someone’s problems through suggestion, action, or anything, really, is very specifically identified as not empathy in NVC.

So, what is the difference between empathy and radical empathy? Well, it depends on who you ask. And if you’re coming from a Nonviolent Communication perspective, empathy is being present, reflecting what you hear through active listening, and guessing some feelings and needs – all to gain clarity and connection; Radical empathy is the same thing, but then there is this whole extra piece of taking action on someone else’s behalf, which, as I said, is not empathy at all, but rather something completely different.