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Empathy and Unconscious Biases


Don't believe everything you think.

Empathy and Unconscious Bias article with image of girl with mechanical cogs over her brain

NOW AVAILABLE - The New Unconscious Bias Knowledge Test and Workbook!

In our quest to become more empathetic and inclusive, we must challenge our unconscious biases to help us get out of our assumptions and better connect with others. Unconscious Biases are the mental shortcuts our brains take when processing vast amounts of information in a split second. Sometimes though, that speed comes a the expense of accuracy. Meaning, we can't believe everything we think.

When connecting with others in an empathetic way - that makes them feel heard, valued, visible and safe - we need to make sure we're not operating from our biases but from our conscious mind and offering considered responses. Think RESPOND vs REACT.

To challenge our unconscious biases we must first become aware they they exist, recognise the different types (there are dozens and dozens of them) and their impact on ourselves and others and then actively and continuously seek to change them in a positive way. We will never eliminate them but we can control how we let them influence our decisions. Unconscious bias training is an important element of empathy training.

Here are some steps to help mitigate the effect of your unconscious biases:

1 - Increase Awareness and Understanding

  • Acknowledge that biases exist and identify your own through the Workbook and tools like the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT)

  • Learn about different types of unconscious biases and their impacts through reading, training, and diverse perspectives.

2 - Practice Mindful Reflection and Empathy

  • Take time to pause and Reflect.

  • Before making decisions, take a moment to question your assumptions and consider if biases are influencing you.

  • Actively practice seeing situations from others’ viewpoints and engage in active listening to better understand their experiences.

  • Engage in Empathy Training to help you develop your healthy empathy skills.

3 - Implement Inclusive Practices and Continuous Improvement

  • At work, implement standardised processes and objective criteria in decision-making to reduce subjective bias.

  • Seek feedback from others about your behaviour and decisions, and partner with someone to keep you accountable in your efforts to reduce bias.

By focusing on these three steps, you can effectively work towards overcoming unconscious biases and creating a more inclusive and empathetic environment at home and at work.


Think about a recent emotionally-charged interaction you had with someone - maybe a colleague, spouse, child or friend - or even a stranger in the traffic.  Write down your initial thoughts or assumptions about that person's behaviour, what was the cause, why did they do it, what were your assumptions? Then, consider what external factors may have influenced that behaviour - could there have been something else going on?

 Take a moment to reflect - Did you initially judge the person's behaviour based on your assumption of their personality or character (internal)?  Did your empathy for that person increase when you considered potential external factors?   Reflect on how these initial impressions might have been influenced by unconscious biases and how they could impact your interactions with that person moving forward. 

(Here's an example - someone cuts us off in the traffic.  We get angry and call them a name. However our opinion changes and empathy increases when we find out they have a sick child in the car they're rushing to the hospital).

This is an example of Fundamental Attribution Error and we cover that as the first unconscious bias in the Workbook.


To further assist in this learning, I have created the Unconscious Bias Knowledge Test and the Unconscious Bias Workbook (Don't Believe Everything You Think).  You might start with the workbook to gain a deeper understanding of 15 specific unconscious biases and then test your knowledge OR do the test first to identify your gaps and then complete the reflective workbook. Either way, these tools are designed to support your growth towards greater empathy, understanding and connection. 

It's a fun, eye-opening journey to discover your own biases, challenge your assumptions, and grow your empathy. 

Take the quiz, dive into the workbook, and see how you can make a positive change to your relationships, workplace and communities.

Stay tuned for more Unconscious Bias resources!

Till next time!

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Leanne butterworth wearing pink shirt that says you got this

Hi! I'm Leanne Butterworth, Empathy Passionista, TEDx Speaker, University Lecturer and Mental Health Advocate.

Empathy First is a Brisbane-based social enterprise offering Empathy workshops, online courses and individual Empathy coaching to help you build connection and strengthen your relationships for personal and professional success.

Contact me today and let's talk about how you can put Empathy First.

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