Empathy…Not a Word That Should Be Thrown Around

“Your Honor, I call Ted Capshaw as my next witness.”

My heart was pounding and my head spinning as I addressed the judge and the courtroom.  I had been called last week to testify on behalf of a young man’s character that I had met 5 years ago and had not spoken to in at least 4 years.

When I knew and mentored this young man he had more promise than any youngster I had come across in Baltimore City…bright, top ranked debater, humble, smile that filled the room, and personable.  I ‘d go so far as to say he was an old soul…even as a 5th grader.  I just knew this kid was destined for something big.

When I looked up from the witness stand I saw a now 16 year old young man in shackles being charged with 1st degree murder.

He and five other boys robbed a 29 year old man riding his bicycle and in the struggle the man was stabbed and died.  I know none of the facts of the case.  All I know was that the lawyer wanted him tried as a juvenile and that was what this hearing was about. I could not have been more saddened and surprised that this young man was in the position he was in.

While I was on the stand, I looked over to the right side of the courtroom at the mother, family and friends of the victim.  Their eyes pierced me with dissatisfaction as the lawyer read a letter of reference I wrote on this young man’s account 5 years ago to get him admitted into a private school.  It was like a sledge hammer hit my chest.  My heart ached for this family.  I felt guilty.

I left confused.  I felt heavy.  Deeply sad.  The image of this young man was plastered in my head.  The image of the grieving mother was also plastered in my head.  I thought to myself there are no winners here.  Two mothers in the same room with unwavering love for their sons had lost them in different ways but the grief on both of their faces seemed eerily the same.

I could not sleep that night and still as I write this I feel heavy and confused.

I share the above because since that day I have been thinking deeply about empathy.  I spend hours a week coaching individuals, leaders, and teams on how to be more empathic with each other.  But, this experience brought the idea of having the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference to a much deeper level for me.

So I ask, how empathetic are you?  If you were one of these mothers would you have the capacity to be empathetic for the other.  Ok.  That may be unfair to ask because of the complexity of the matter. But perhaps it is not unfair to ask if you have had or have the capacity to be empathetic to someone that has pissed you off, hurt you, betrayed you or simply let you down?

My thoughts are far too deep for a singular blog post but worthy of thought.  I try extremely hard to be empathetic.  Some would say I am good at what I do because of my ability to be empathetic.  However, the above experience has without a doubt challenged me deeply to think about how empathetic and forgiving I am…consistently.  I have work to do.

The world, our families, our neighborhoods, our cities and every one of us as individuals need more empathy.  It could in fact be a game changer.  A life changer.  A life saver.  A marriage saver.  A job saver. A needed meeting in the middle.

Imagine if each of us developed the ability to truly step out of our own experiences, thoughts, prejudices and judgements and paused to reflect on the other side.  What is their frame of reference? Why did they do or not do something?  How does it feel to walk in their shoes?

I think there would be more forgiveness, more understanding, and more personal accountability.  And, I think people would approach people differently and make different choices.  More of us would feel heard.  More of us would be understood…deeply.

I get that one could read this and get angry.  Angry that a man lost his life.  One could say put all those young men involved in jail.  Believe me, I felt that.  But I also felt and saw the grief on the other side which is why I am in this state of deeper thought about empathy.  There is always the other side…always.

In the framework of this blog, I am asking you as leaders and people to self reflect…I am.

As with a few other posts, I am unclear if my message will land because of my jumbled and deep thoughts but hope in some small way these few words create more empathy in your world…starting with you at work, at home and out in the world.

I hope and pray for healing on both sides of that courtroom.


Stay True,




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  1. I hear you Ted. I know the young man who was killed and haven’t commuted through my normal route to work since this event happened. I certainly have and continue to try to feel empathy for the youth in our city that are struggling and as a mother try to imagine how I’d feel if my child was involved in either side of this tragedy. It’s a struggle, but I can continue to try. You are right that no one wins and it is a huge loss shared by many. Thanks for sharing your experience; it’s a good reminder.

    1. It is confusing and gut wrenching…complex…in need of healing and understanding. And, we never really know the ripple affect…you taking a different route to work. I appreciate your comment and you being so incredibly mindful.

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