Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

Let’s Take the Randomness Out of Kindness with Proactive Empathy

What if random acts of kindness weren’t random? What if empathy was proactive? What if we bordered on impatience in our desire to help people who needed our active listening, a hand up, or—best case—a gesture that would be life-changing?

These thoughts went through my head when I learned about Eastern Michigan University football player Brian Dooley donating his athletic scholarship to a fellow teammate. Dooley noticed that Zack Conti was working multiple jobs and donating plasma to make ends meet at school. Dooley began to get actively curious about a solution.

When Dooley asked his head coach if there was something that could be done, Coach Creighton consulted with the NCAA. Since the NCAA allows the team to offer a cap of eighty-five scholarships each year, offering one more would be considered unfair to other teams. 

Dooley couldn’t let it end there. He said, “Coach, that guy has earned it. I’ve talked this over with my family. And if there’s a way to make this happen, I am willing to give up my scholarship as a gift to Zack Conti.” It wasn’t long before Coach Creighton held a team meeting where Dooley handed the scholarship transfer letter to Conti, making it official.

Times of India senior consultant Vithal Nadkarni once wrote that proactive empathy “leads to kindness and cooperation, the hallmarks of ‘humanity.’” Nadkarni’s elegant observation reminds me of the word humankind.

The definition is “human beings as a collective.” Aren’t human beings better when they’re acting collectively or considering one another when making choices? Equally important, the word kind is part of humankind. I like to think that when we express kindness, we’re exhibiting the hallmark of our humanity.

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Dooley’s proactive empathy is about being attuned to Conti’s dilemma and taking initiative to solve his problem. He created an opportunity before it escalated and resulted in Conti leaving the team. “Seeing him walk away from something that he loves did not sit well with me,” said Dooley.

We’ve all heard the term “putting out fires” at work, which, if you think about it, is a reactionary behavior. What if, instead, we choose to proactively empathize and keep an eye out for each other before situations require extinguishing? What are some systems we could put into place that make it easier for teammates to check in with one another?

I hosted an Off the Rak conversation with University of Colorado’s Dr. Neil Epperson and Dr. Matt Mishkind, both from the Anschutz Medical Campus. Mishkind spoke of interviewing the teammates of a person who had been hospitalized.

Regretfully, everyone on the team had noticed this person deteriorating for months, but no one asked if they needed help. No one broached it with the leadership. No one even triangulated with other team members about it.

Mishkind’s story is a classic example of passive empathy. If we wait for someone to express that they need help, we’re asking the person who’s already vulnerable to feel confident in exposing themselves further.

Even under the most supportive of circumstances, EMU’s Conti admitted that “asking for help isn’t easy.” Not every spark on your team or in your workplace will lead to a fire that calls for you to put it out, but these stories are timely examples, given how much the critical need for social support has surfaced in recent months.

Don’t wait for sparks to ignite; instead, look for ways to proactively empathize. Practice active listening, identify people who could use a hand up, or ask yourself how your interaction with someone could change their circumstances. It doesn’t take much. Dooley showed us it’s entirely possible.


  1. Patrick Daniels

    Walt – great story from Eastern Michigan and great reminder to have a heart that leans in this direction so that our eyes are able to see a need before it has to be expressed! Thanks!

    Reply to Patrick Daniels

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