The six pillars of gratitude: Pillar 3 – empathy


Even if we have can find the authentic place within ourselves to sincerely express our gratitude, we need to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of the person we wish to express our gratitude to.  We need to understand all of the cultural and social nuances of gratitude in their context. A key to being able to achieve this is the character strength of empathy.

It may be helpful to realise that we tend to express gratitude in ways that we would like to receive it. For example, if we like to be thanked verbally and publicly in a work situation we may do this same thing to thank a colleague. However, a person may be shy or prefer to stay away from the limelight and may need to be thanked in other ways, such as offering to take on some of their workload so they can get home early to their family.

As I have explored in other blogs being able to find ways to express gratitude that are meaningful to others can often become more challenging when a person comes from a different culture.

Similarly, we need to be empathetic to their difficulty in expressing gratitude to us because of cultural differences. One example of this was relayed to me by a PhD supervisor of an indigenous student. She was never thanked by this student for her efforts and could see that it was having a negative effect on their relationship as she didn’t feel appreciated. It wasn’t until we explored the different value given by many indigenous people to ‘white fella’s’ gratitude, that the supervisor realised that she was imposing her expectations on the student of how gratitude should be ‘correctly’ expressed. When she was able to see that it wasn’t an absence of gratitude, but that it was being expressed in different ways, she was able to give up her resentment.

We may also need to extend empathy to those who find it difficult to express gratitude towards us. If we replace our expectations of how others should be thankful for what we have given them with empathy for their situation, which may be preventing them from thanking us, we thwart the rise of resentment. In doing so we have a far greater chance of maintaining our gratitude.

One of the most classic cases where this applies is with our teenage children. As parents of teenagers, we can be left feeling totally drained and under-appreciated. However, if we go into their world with an understanding that stages of development impact on expressions of gratitude, we are able to see that they may be distracted with things that are going on in their own lives, with their friendships or other fears and worries.

Empathy awakens gratitude. Judgement of others kills it.

A group of school principals I worked with were engaged in a book club around my book Gratitude in Education: A Radical View. The area where they found it most difficult to express gratitude was with the education system – the people “running the show” and setting all the policies and procedures for their role as a principal. They found it difficult to get past feelings of being undervalued and under-appreciated. Some named this as the main reason why they couldn’t express gratitude to others, because it was not being modelled by those ‘above’.

However, when we discussed this situation more fully, we realised that although it would be wonderful if people in positions of power were to express gratitude to us, perhaps this is not what they perceive as being part of their role. The role is to look after the system, not necessarily to nurture relationships. Indeed, most people ‘at the top’ have been selected for their capacity to run a tight ship, to be pragmatic, to implement policies, to think broadly and to communicate with all stakeholders. The principals were able to understand that the role didn’t extend to nurturing relationships in this context. The empathy that they were able to extend to those at the top was transformative in changing the attitude of the principals from one of resentment to one of gratitude.

What’s good to take note of here is that this change of heart became possible by having a community of people who could openly discuss their difficulties in finding gratitude. An honest and supportive discussion of what was inhibiting them was crucial to finding their way back to gratitude.

Equally as crucial was the capacity to put themselves in the shoes of the other – in this case, the people who run the system.

This is not to say, however, that those people who are in such positions don’t need to find or express gratitude. Indeed, their inner attitude of gratitude will flow to the whole organisation and be extremely powerful. However, we need to be aware that their capacity to express deep gratitude in sincere and meaningful ways will quite likely be limited. They simply don’t have the power to do this beyond their immediate circle (a place where it would be crucial for their gratitude to be expressed).

To find deep gratitude often requires us to step outside our own needs and way of being and enter the world of the other. Developing the quality of empathy enables us to do this.


Dr Kerry Howells is an author, award-winning educator and experienced researcher.

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