Introduction to Empathy - July 2014
A: Some Questions About Empathy
What is it?
- Empathy is the ability to understand someone from their own perspective.
- It means putting yourself in their shoes (so to speak) so that you can feel what they are feeling.
Why is empathy important?
- We all need to feel safe, understood and valued.
- We need to know that what we say has been heard and will be respected.
- Empathy builds rapport and nurtures relationships.
- It helps us to approach differences of opinion in a spirit of friendly enquiry.
- It enables us to resolve conflicts in a healthy, respectful and creative way.
Can I have empathy with someone even if I don’t agree with everything they say?
- You certainly can.
- It takes patience, imagination and commitment.
- Empathy helps us to re-frame disagreements as fascinating journeys of mutual discovery.
How can I develop empathy?
- Listen carefully, with an open mind and a spirit of friendly curiosity.
- Take in everything the person conveys: words, silences, facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures.
- Pay particular attention to the feelings he or she expresses.
- Notice what they're not saying.
- Accept that the person's perception is real to him or her. Your primary objective is to understand, not to correct, persuade or argue.
- Use reflective listening (also called mirroring) to be sure that you've heard and understood the person correctly. For instance, "What I hear you saying is... Is that right?" Present the facts as well as the feelings and thoughts that go with them. Then listen carefully and sensitively while the person either verifies or corrects your summary.
- Don't be discouraged if you find it difficult. Developing empathy is a lifelong process.
Can empathy ever be dangerous?
- Yes, if we don't have healthy emotional boundaries. Regular, enjoyable physical activities such as walking and gardening can replenish your reserves and build your energy. Anything that keeps you in touch with nature can boost your sense of calm and balance.
- Cultivate your intuition (your inner voice) and listen to its promptings. Trust it to resonate with what feels right to you, and to warn you when something is wrong.
- This is a slow process, gradually building your powers of discernment.
- Use your intuition to make conscious choices about what to feel and experience. As you exercise your new sense of awareness and responsibility, you will be able to embrace your gift with clarity and live with abundance.
B: Three Kinds of Empathy
If you'd like to delve into this topic more deeply, you may be interested in the work of two psychologists, Dr Daniel Goleman and Dr Paul Ekman. Dr Goleman is a science journalist and author of more than 10 books, including Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence. Dr Ekman is also much published. The American Psychological Association has identified him as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.
The quotes below come from a blog posted by Dr Goleman on the 12th June 20071. In this blog he summarised a long conversation with Dr Ekman, who described three distinct kinds of empathy:
Cognitive empathy means "knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking, this kind of empathy can help in, say, a negotiation or in motivating people."
While this may sound attractive, we need to be aware that "there can be a dark side[...] - in fact, those who fall within the 'Dark Triad' - narcissists, Machiavellians and sociopaths (see Chapter 8 in Social Intelligence) - can be talented in this regard, while having no sympathy whatever for their victims."
Emotional empathy means feeling "along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This emotional contagion, social neuroscience tells us, depends in large part on the mirror neuron system (see Chapter Three in Social Intelligence). Emotional empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world".
This too has a downside. If you have trouble managing distressing emotions, you may find yourself becoming drained. This can lead to psychological exhaustion and eventually to burnout. "The purposeful detachment cultivated by those in medicine offers one way to inoculate against burnout. But the danger arises when detachment leads to indifference, rather than to well-calibrated caring.
Compassionate empathy means that "we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed. Paul told me about his daughter, who works as a social worker in a large city hospital. In her situation, he said, she can't afford to let emotional empathy overwhelm her. 'My daughter's clients don't want her to cry when they're crying,' as he put it. 'They want her to help them figure out what to do now - how to arrange a funeral, how to deal with the loss of a child.'"
This kind of empathy has also been described as empathic concern - see Chapter Six in Social Intelligence.