What is Radical Empathy?

We use the phrase “Radical Empathy” a lot, so we figured it was time to explain what we mean by it. Let's dig in to empathy first. 

Defining Empathy

The dictionary definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Psychologists take it one step further separating the understanding and sharing in to cognitive and emotional empathy:

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy (understanding the feelings of others) is the largely conscious drive to recognize accurately and understand another’s emotional state. Sometimes we call this kind of empathy “perspective taking.”

Emotional Empathy


Emotional empathy, (sharing the feelings of others) also called affective empathy or primitive empathy, is the subjective state resulting from emotional contagion. It is our automatic drive to respond appropriately to another’s emotions. This kind of empathy happens automatically, and often unconsciously. It has also been referred to as the vicarious sharing of emotions. Source

This ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and take their perspective has been praised as a hugely important skill for the future of humanity by politicians, educators, business leaders, and more. The decline of empathy in correlation with the decline of play has been chronicled by researchers. By and large people love the idea of empathy.

Impossible But Worth it

But the real ability to totally understand where another person is coming from and feel what they are feeling is impossible. I will never totally understand you, because I will never have lived your life. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. Trying to better understand others is core to building more authentic, deeper connections. And admitting, to ourselves and others, that we will never completely see the world through their eyes is the first step toward being able to remove judgment and shame. This quest to remove judgment and better understand another person’s worldview is one of the most powerful community builders we have.

Now what about radical?


Radical is defined as:

  1. of or going to the root or origin; fundamental: a radical difference.
  2. thorough going or extreme, especially as regards change from accepted or traditional forms: a radical change in the policy of a company.
  3. favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms: radical ideas; radical and anarchistic ideologues.
  4. favoring, supporting, or representing extreme forms of religious fundamentalism: radical Muslims.
  5. forming a basis or foundation.
  6. existing inherently in a thing or person: radical defects of character.

Radical has been used to describe other movements or ideas like being radical feminism or political radicalism. In these cases it means extreme or revolutionary.

Other uses of the radical

Radical feminism is a perspective within feminism that calls for a radical reordering of society in which male supremacy is eliminated in all social and economic contexts. Radical feminists seek to abolish patriarchy by challenging existing social norms and institutions, rather than through a purely political process. (source)

The term political radicalism (or simply, in political science, radicalism) denotes political principles focused on altering social structures through revolutionary means and changing value systems in fundamental ways. (source)


How we define radical empathy:

Radical Empathy is actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others. To fundamentally change our perspectives from judgmental to accepting, in an attempt to more authentically connect with ourselves and others. Our radically empathetic community places this at the root of everything we do.

Downtown Stomping Ground

At most other camps kids go from one activity to the next jumping through pre-designed hoops to make sure they experience new things. By removing judgement from how camper’s spend their time, we are able to create structured offerings that kids can opt into, things like archery, boating, Christmas in July, and more, but also create Downtown Stomping Ground (DTSG as the kids call it), where kids can make their own fun. In DTSG we have hammocks, arts and craft supplies, balls, board games, and more loose parts. DTSG is often where kids make the best memories and is core to them feeling comfortable at camp, but can only work when we create a culture and values around the fact that it is ok to do exactly what you want. That we have removed the judgement and pressure to be “productive.”

We have seen amazing things happen in DTSG. Things like kids that from the outside would never appear to be connected becoming best friends over a game of Catan, brand new camp changing games being invented, and hundreds of inside jokes that spark deep and lasting friendships. Downtown Stomping Ground is just one example of how removing judgement and striving to take different perspectives leads to innovation and a much better camp experience for campers and staff. You can read about our Circle System, another perspective shifting example here.  

Basic Empathy Isn't Enough We Need More

In essence what we are saying is that basic empathy isn't enough. What the world needs and we try to create at camp is radical empathy. That acknowledging our inability to totally understand where everyone is coming from but working our asses off to try, will lead to a stronger more compassionate and more joyful community. We try to make every decision and action at Stomping Ground from this radically empathetic place. We aren’t perfect and we often fall short, but radical empathy is our north star.

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