Problem Solving Versus Empathy

A classical relationship problem is the dichotomy between solving a problem and providing empathy. If you really want to understand this, spend two minutes and watch the awesome “It’s Not About The Nail” video below.

Amy and I have figured this out extremely well in our relationship. We talk about it in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur using the example of the scene from the movie White Men Can’t Jump to frame the situation.

There’s a delightful scene in the movie White Men Can’t Jump. In it, Billy Hoyle (played by Woody Harrelson) and Gloria Clemente (played by Rosie Perez) are in bed together. Gloria says to Billy, “Honey, I’m thirsty.” Billy gets up without saying word, goes to the kitchen, fills up a glass of water, brings it back to the bed, and gives it to Gloria. As Billy is crawling back into bed, Gloria tosses the water in his face. Startled, Billy says, “What?!” A long conversation ensues, which can be summarized as, “Honey, when I say I’m thirsty, I don’t want a glass of water. I want empathy. I want you to say, ‘I know what it’s like to be thirsty.’”

But this isn’t limited to personal relationships, or the difference between men and women (lots of men need empathy, even if they don’t know how to ask for it.) I see this all the time in my interaction with entrepreneurs and CEOs. I see it in the board room. And I see it in the way a CEO works with her leadership team.

The natural reaction in many of these cases is to immediately jump in and solve the problem. Granted, this is male-centric, as the ratio of men to women in these meetings at startups and entrepreneurial companies is very high. But it’s also CEO and entrepreneur-centric behavior; most CEOs and entrepreneurs are heat seeking problem solving missiles.

If you are an entrepreneur, CEO, or VC take a moment and think. Do you ever focus on “empathy” rather than “problem solving.” If you want to see an example of this in action, watch Jerry Colonna’s brilliant interview with Jason Calacanis. There’s a lot of incredible things on display in this interview, including plenty of empathy.

  • John Fein

    So true – my wife calls me Mr Fix-it and it’s not a compliment! (I’m working on it.) I’ve worked for a Fortune 20 company for 8 years and see very little empathy unfortunately. It’s always about the problems not the people. It can be a very depersonalizing experience, even for guys. I have no doubt it increases stress and makes the environment less rewarding/team oriented.

  • NickN

    After watching the nail, I think I need to go apologize to my wife.

    • Smart man!

      • NickN

        Well, to be brutally honest… I watched the video and my first thought was “Man, that guy is soo right”. Then a couple of minutes later, I thought “oh. crap.”.

        Thank you 🙂

  • Nick Ambrose

    That’s a great video and has also been a very hard issue for me over the years. I too can definitely be a “Mr Fix it” both personally and at work but have definitely improved over the years.

    One decided benefit of the empathy route is that if that’s the correct reaction I find I often save a lot of heartache and effort because I/we realize the problem itself might not even need fixing!

    Or in the work environment, it might allow you to take a step back and see if you need to go an entirely different direction rather than jump straight in and start hacking away.

    • “I find I often save a lot of heartache and effort because I/we realize the problem itself might not even need fixing!” – this is a very powerful statement. And true in more cases than most people realize.

      • Nick Ambrose

        Something I regularly have to re-learn, but I am getting better.

        There’s not much worse than putting a ton of work into something and then having someone else pipe up with “Why the heck are we doing THAT” and either eliminating the whole thing or finding a much simpler way to go about it.

  • What a timely post – I came across this same video about two weeks ago (in the context of talking about relationships) and had the same thought about applications in startups/business.

    What’s interesting is that while many CEO types are more problem solvers than empathetic, they’re not immune to seeking empathy themselves. I think this is one of the reasons entrepreneurs prefer VCs with operational experience. Sometimes it’s about their ability to solve the problem since they’ve been through it, but more deeply, it’s about a level of empathy for how hard it is to start a business, raise money and deal with all of the challenges of keeping a team focused on a singular goal.

  • erict19

    Thanks for sharing – it’s amazing how geared we are toward jumping to solutions and conclusions. In translating the empathy-driven approach to customers/users, I have found design thinking methodology helpful: in particular, their framework for interviewing for empathy, empathy mapping and prototyping for empathy.

    • Jeff Abri

      Also a great 60 Minutes segment with David Kelley on Design Thinking

      • The David Kelley episode is outstanding.

      • The David Kelley 60 minutes segment is outstanding.

      • The David Kelley 60 minutes segment is outstanding –

      • panterosa,

        If you want to learn empathy to design for someone just watch. Exactly. That’s how I became a toy and game designer, by watching my kid and her friends with the successes and failures of play. Then talking with their parents on what they would buy.

  • I don’t know how you do it…. I was watching the interview with Jerry when my wife walks in my office. I pause the video, speak with my wife, then go back to my computer and see your blog post. My wife is still in the office so we watch the 2 minute video together and laugh hysterically. SO TRUE. Then I scroll down to see your posting of Jerry’s interview as a great example of empathy. SO TRUE. Winning post! Made my day.

  • Yes, I got a small dose of that yesterday when Jerry answered my comment with empathy and put the question back on me, letting me reach my own conclusion.

    It’s a powerful reminder of the power of coaching and self-awareness.

  • There’s a great scene in the TV show West Wing where one of the senior staffers is being questioned by the White House Council. The Council pauses for a second and says, “Do you know the time?” The staffer looks at her watch and says, “10:30” and the council says, “You need to stop doing that. Answer the question you are asked. The answer to ‘Do you know the time?’ Is ‘Yes.'”

    I always think of that scene when I get into a business or personal situation where I am not certain whether we are empathizing or problem solving.

    • I love that scene!

  • Great point.
    I can’t believe how long it took me to get any kind of a handle on this. A side effect of this gender difference is that men underestimate how strong women are – the fact that they emote most certainly doesn’t mean they can’t handle it. 🙂

  • Shaq Abid


    is the video conveying the idea that hard headed stubborn entrepreneurs often impede their own success by behaving that way

    i was thinking more along the lines as empathy being the reason we solve the problems at hand!


    -the foolish philosopher

  • AJ Campbell

    Wow, this interview with Jerry hit me like a Mack truck. When they each talk about how Dad lost his job and how it affected the direction of their lives… man, that hits close to home.

  • panterosa,

    Brad, Did you read the classic book on this – “Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus?”

    • Yup – a long time ago. It’s very good.

      • panterosa,

        And the other one – You Just Don’t Understand?

        Jerry impressed upon me the power of being heard. It’s the first step towards empathy.

        PS I come from a family of fixers and am a reformed fixer. I just listen now 🙂

  • Ponnuchamy Varatharaj

    This nail movie clip is created purely from men’s point-of-view we (men) surely love watching it. But we should also understand that there should be another movie to show women’s point-of-view of a complementary situation.

    Man can fix things physically, woman can read the feeling of man’s mind, so even if he fixes without empathy she can read that, that fix was without love, thus she becomes unsatisfied. When she is not getting empathy any where, getting a simple empathy (even without fixing) is satisfactory for her heart – but it is a joke for us (men), so we love this movie clip.

  • howirecovered

    Awesome Brad! That lesson cost me a lot of money in therapy… could’ve just read your blog instead:)

    Will enjoy showing this to my wife and kids.

  • Christine

    brad-thank you for sharing the interview with jerry and jason. powerful and beautiful.

  • I just love the phrase “heat seeking problem solving missiles” — that’s my MO, almost to a fault. Often I’m firing everything in my arsenal before I realize my ally needs understanding and discussion, not solutions. Great videos and as always another great post, Brad. Your blog is a continual source of goodness, a daily reader for years now — thank yoo!

  • laurayecies

    I think a useful tool is to simply ask the person sharing the problem or issue what they want – problem solving or listening/empathy. In my experience they will tell you.

    • Yup! I often do this with my wife Amy. “Do you want a glass of water, or do you want empathy?”

  • IMHO, I think you intend to refer to sympathy rather than empathy. You do, in fact, express empathy when you propose a solution; it would be impossible to offer a good solution without an intellectual understanding of the problem from the other’s perspective. What the other actually wants, however, is sympathy: the expression that you identify with and experience their negative feelings as well. Empathy is a prerequisite to both problem-solving and sympathizing.

    (To risk digressing, sympathy unfortunately has a negative stigma in society [“I don’t need your sympathy!”] but I think it’s a necessary part of loving relationships. Aristotle said “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” If you’re not feeling what the other body is experiencing, you and the other are not of one soul.)

    • I disagree. Wikipedia actually has a nice comparison of empathy and sympathy. Specifically, “Sympathy does not require the sharing of the same emotional state.”

      Sympathy is a feeling and concern. Or it can be the perception, understanding, and reaction to the distress or need of another human being. This empathic concern is driven by a switch in viewpoint, from a personal perspective to the perspective of another group or individual who is in need. Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably. Sympathy is a feeling, but the two terms have distinct origins and meanings. Empathy refers to the understanding and sharing of a specific emotional state with another person. Sympathy does not require the sharing of the same emotional state. Instead, sympathy is a concern for the well-being of another. Although sympathy may begin with empathizing with the same emotion another person is feeling, sympathy can be extended to other emotional states.

      • I too find that article to be informative.

        My interpretation of that paragraph is different. The Wikipedia article for Empathy states that it is “the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another… being.” (Emphasis mine.) It’s not the actual experience of, or identification with, those emotions or any plight of the other. On the other hand, as the first two sentences convey of your blockquote, sympathy is the emotional identification (“feeling and concern”) with the needs of another. As indicated by the quote you pulled out, this doesn’t need to be expressed by sharing the emotional state of the other, but often times it does (such as when a loved one of a good friend passes, and a feeling of loss arises in you).

        Taking it back to the video in your post, it’s possible to argue that the woman only wanted her partner to express that he understands clinically, and at an emotional distance, what she’s going through, the way a psychologist might. But the fact that he uses other communication cues to express that he’s feeling a strong concern for her well-being (shaking his head, defeated tone, lowering inflection) leads me to believe the the video is about identifying emotionally with the other’s plight.

        Anyway, I’m glad we both agree that these concepts are important and that understanding how the terms are used is valuable.

  • Kathy Gallup Keating

    People in business (and relationships) often listen to sound bites, interpret them through their own filters then jump to a solution based on their own personal interpretation. IMHO this is why many companies experience dysfunction on their leadership teams.

    Until you can experience true empathy for another person, how can you really understand what problem needs to be solved? And what makes you qualified to solve their problem anyway? A truly empathic person listens and coaches without judgement and supports that person to create their own solutions.

    Sympathy (to me) is about supporting that person to stay in “blame” or “justification”. Empathy (to me) is about coaching them through their story so that they can get to “ownership/responsibility” for creating their own solutions. The more we empower others to reach their own conclusions, the more we’ll set them up (and ourselves) for success long-term.