The Rule of the Chess Player: How to Show Empathy

Two persons playing chess, illustrating how the rule of the chess player teaches you how to show empathy

Learn how a principle taken from psychology—and the game of chess—can teach you how to show empathy and build stronger relationships.

I’m a bit of a chess nerd.

If you play any chess yourself, or if you’ve ever stopped to watch the old men play in the park, you’ll notice something interesting. Suddenly, one of the persons watching makes a pained expression on their face, accompanied by a sound of horror, so as to say:

How could they make that move???

You know what’s so funny about that? Those of us who are so dumbfounded, so astonished that someone could make such a horrible move…

Often make the same kind of move when we’re playing.

Why is that?

The problem has to do with something we’ve spoken about before: The perspective gap.

The perspective gap says that we often misjudge how we would react (or even how we have reacted) when put in an intense situation.

In the chess scenario, it’s easy to see things completely rationally when we’re not the one playing. We’re looking from the side, which gives us a completely different perspective. We’re not emotionally attached to the situation; our heart doesn’t start beating faster when we see a potential good move, we don’t get especially stressed when we feel the pressure mounting.

This principle has a lot to do with emotional intelligence. I like to call it: The Rule of the Chess Player.

What is the rule of the chess player?

The rule of the chess player states that: When you’re in an emotionally intense situation, your perspective will be drastically different than when you’re not in that situation.

Acknowledging the rule of the chess player helps you to do two very important things.

1. Show more empathy.

Because of the perspective gap, when we see someone make a huge mistake our default is often to judge, thinking: “Well, they’re getting what they deserve.” Or, “Ah, it’s not that bad, they’ll get over it.”

But those reactions don’t do anyone any good. They don’t help the person, and they don’t help you or your relationship with that person. They just put more distance between you.

In contrast, if you can recognize that, put in similar circumstances, your thoughts and emotions play a huge role and could cause you to make (and have caused you to make) big mistakes, your perspective changes.

You think to yourself: “Wow, I’ve been there. I know how it feels to be in a tough situation. What can I do to help?”

Now, you’re primed to actually help the person—maybe with practical action, maybe with just a listening ear and a kind word. This helps you to build a bridge, strengthening your relationship with increased empathy.

2. Build better habits.

You know what makes great chess players really great?

They practice. A lot.

Master chess players have played countless games. Sometimes in real life, against real opponents. Sometimes in their heads, against themselves.

These players practice the same moves over and over, until they can recite them almost without even trying. In many cases, they’re simply following a series of predetermined moves. And when they encounter a new situation, they rely on principles they’ve learned to help them determine the best course of action.

You can do the same thing with your emotional skills.

Like a master chess player practicing moves and strategy, you must train your emotions—learning healthy habits and routines that allow you to make the same “moves,” even when under emotional stress.

Here’s where knowing the principles, or “rules” of emotional intelligence come into play: The more you know them (and practice them), the more prepared you are to follow them when the time comes.

So, whether you’re trying to improve your relationships, or trying to improve yourself, remember the rule of the chess player. It’s a great reminder that everyone makes mistakes…

And a great way to learn how to reduce yours.


If you liked this post, you might enjoy more of our emotional intelligence tools: simple frameworks to help you better understand and manage emotions, communicate more effectively, and build stronger relationships.


You might also like:

What Is Empathy? The 3 Types of Empathy and How They Differ

Can Empathy Be Bad? Make Your Empathy Helpful, Not Harmful

The Perspective Gap: Why Showing Empathy Is Hard

Related articles

Get a quick glance of what our readers like the most
A woman waits for it: She visualizes what she wants to do as she builds motivation to do it.

Wait For It: How to Motivate Yourself

A woman learns how to use her strength of confidence without it becoming a weakness

How to Use Your Strength: The Rule of Strength and Weakness

Abstract image of two women thinking different things, showing that perception is reality

Perception Is Reality: How to See From Other Perspectives

Two persons playing chess, illustrating how the rule of the chess player teaches you how to show empathy

The Rule of the Chess Player: How to Show Empathy

Two people building a bridge, symbolizing bridging the perspective gap

The Perspective Gap: Why Showing Empathy Is Hard

abstract clock frozen in time

Don’t Freeze Them in Time: How to Change Your View of Others

Blue dolphin

How to Control Negative Thoughts: Use the “Blue Dolphin Rule”

Build Your Emotional Vocabulary: Emotion Words List

Why You Over Explain—and How to Stop (Using Just 6 Words)

What Is FOFO? Beware of The Fear of Finding Out (And Learn How to Fight It)

Raise your EQ.
One week at a time.

Join a community of tens of thousands building their emotional intelligence with EQ Applied.

Join the weekly newsletter
You really make the concepts very easy to understand.
You’ve helped me in so many ways.
Really practical advice delivered in a simple form.
I feel like I just had a psychologist appointment. Thank you!
This is exactly what I needed at this point in my life.
Your EQ Rules of life have helped in more ways than I expected.
The language you chose to explain EQ was simple and clear, which made it understandable.
As a social worker I really found this to be helpful.
I have adult ADHD, so these tips are amazing for people like me, for time management.
I especially appreciate your heart centered approach.
I enjoy every lesson.
Really helpful advice & lovely writing style, not to mention perfect timing.
I truly look forward to each email.
The simplicity and reality of the rules fit in with any stage of life.
Loving your course. Wish I did this 30 years ago.
Your emails are on my "open first" list. Excellent advice and insights.
So inspiring, encouraging, and educational.
I think this lesson has definitely made me a better person today.
Truly life-changing!
Your emails are the basis for conversations I have with my son and nephew.
Thanks for being real, legit, and genuine. Rare qualities.
I absolutely love this.
Sometimes you are better than my therapist.