Measuring the Immeasurable: a survey of empathic versatility

Karen Faith
Sub Rosa
Published in
4 min readApr 3, 2020


The Applied Empathy Frequency measures empathic versatility across 7 archetypes. Image description: archetype icons in a continuum from low to high.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

This sentiment is often used to praise love over money, but when William Bruce Cameron first articulated the phrase in 1963, he was lamenting the fact that sociological data could not be processed in the same way that more quantitative data could. As empathy-centric strategists and designers, we at Sub Rosa give both use cases a vigorous head nod, hand over heart.

However, in each facet of our work, the imperative to measure persists, and one of the most beautiful and rewarding challenges is discovering how to measure the immeasurable. Humans aren’t just layered and complex; they change, too. Sometimes in an instant. Sometimes so subtly one can barely perceive it.

Recently, Sub Rosa took on the challenge of measuring empathic behaviors, and found ourselves humming with variables.

In our lives and work at Sub Rosa, we’ve found that Empathic Archetypes exist in each of us in unique proportions, and that developing fluency in all seven gives us empathic versatility. After all, the major malfunction of the Golden Rule its false premise that we are the same–that what I want is what you want. Because of our difference, it is helpful to develop the capacity to shift gears with one another.

In order to spark that versatility, we have created a tool to discover the archetypal makeup of individuals and teams, called the Applied Empathy Frequency. We call it a frequency not only because it identifies a unique vibe, so to speak, but because time is a factor; your Applied Empathy Frequency changes as you do, which is a big deal. Where other self-assessments might offer you a label for your type, this one produces a temporary glance at your present moment.

When we began calculating results for individuals, we found the results easy to read, but when we measured the archetypal makeup of teams, we ran into a marvelous problem. Not only were team members unique in their empathic behaviors, they were unique in their survey-taking behaviors as well.

We tried measuring the team result in a variety of ways–cumulative points, top scores by static threshold, strengths by percentiles–but the range of response behaviors was so broad, no one metric felt reflective of the team.

Photo description: a series of hand-drawn pie charts

Shuffling over a dozen color coded pie charts of Sub Rosa’s archetypal makeup, our research team took the issue to a series of specialists: 1 statistician, 2 data scientists, a political polling expert, and finally, Michael Ventura, our founder. We imagined he knew our team’s vibe best, plus we needed affirmation on a wiggly idea: considering our team’s diversity, we wanted to measure them each on their own scale.

Michael’s response rang the bell: “To grade everyone on the same scale would be unempathic.”

We found that to measure each team member with an external, static standard would itself negate the aspiration of our work. So we analyzed each person’s data empathically, offering them a portrait of their archetypes, calibrated to their own response style. Like all empathic adjustments, it took a little more time and introduced a few more questions, but brought us a truer, more beautiful, and more actionable outcome.

We looked for a way to be counted, and were guided by the power of what counts.

The premise of empathy itself is our singularity and evanescence–factors which wreak havoc and magic wherever they go. Thus, the test as it stands is a mix of algebra and poetry: a calculated series of puzzling phrases worthy of contemplation. And the contemplation it inspired has already proven rewarding.

Our team is working with better knowledge of our ways of collaborating, and are building skill in our less-practiced modes. We’re trying on the empathic archetypes to access new ways of thinking. But we also just like ourselves more. Respecting impermanence and difference is a radical act of non-judgment which doesn’t allow us to believe our mannerisms are permanent features or problematic flaws. Every mode has its gifts, and when we tap into our empathic versatility, we feel pretty gifted.

The next time you find yourself in a quantitative vs. qualitative bind, lean in to what matters, and let the measuring follow. We are a community of humans, firstly and lastly, and that is everything that counts.

For a report on your team’s empathic versatility, or to learn more about Applied Empathy, write to



Karen Faith
Sub Rosa

Karen Faith is an ethnographer and founder of Others Unlimited, empathy training for research, collaboration, and citizenship.