Empathy and the Goldilocks effect


We all know the story of Goldilocks. The somewhat adventurous girl who trespassed onto the three bear's property, then proceeded to steal their food and 'make like a squatter' in one of their beds.

Tasting the three bowls of porridge, she found one that was too cold, one too hot, until she eventually found the porridge that was "just right". 

Empathy is a bit like that; it's like trying to find the amount and type that is "just right". 

According to Roche Martin, Empathy is one's ability to be aware of, understand, and appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others. Click here to listen to Martyn Newman speak about it in detail.

As leaders, this can be like walking a tight-rope... If we show too much empathy, we potentially become a door-mat or a people-rescuer. On the other hand, if we show too little empathy we can come across as hard or heartless. 

When considering research from the field of mBraining that states we have three brains; head, heart and gut, empathy derives from the heart brain. In the case of someone with too much empathy, their heart brain may be overriding their head and gut brain. And so too for the person who struggles with showing empathy; their head or gut brains are potentially overriding their heart brain. The key is to find congruence and balance between all three brains.

So how might you begin?

For the person who struggles with showing empathy, learning the skills of active listening and paraphrasing (or as I like to call it 'cherry-picking") are a great place to start. When you apply these skills, you are showing you are present and wish to understand. 

For or those who struggle with showing too much empathy, actively applying a head-brain consciousness across a situation and considering logically whether this is helping the person, or helping you feel good. Are you rescuing or supporting them to grow? 

The amount of empathy you show may also vary according to the situation; this is where adaptability and your ability to read a situation is vital.

Each require ongoing effort and mindfulness. It may feel false, or harsh at first, but know that though this discomfort, you are growing. 

So so like Goldilocks (without the law-breaking behaviour), seek to find the amount of empathy that is "just right" for the situation. Apply the strategies and watch with an inquiring mind over the effect they have on those with whom you interact.


I run a range of leadership development programmes from self-leadership through to leadership of others. If you are interested in finding-out more contact me for a chat.


Go well.