Yesterday, I had a discussion over empathy with somebody close to me who said, “Empathy is most needed in human communication, but empathy without sympathy has no humanistic value. A con man may feel empathy for you, but if he has no morals or feelings of sympathy, he can use that empathy against you.”
This made me reflect on empathy. To me, empathy is a process of understanding and feeling into another person, as well as it is an internal reaction activated by a cue from the other person.
On Empathy, Encyclopedia Britannica says:
“”The ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, equivalent to the German Einfühlung and modeled on “sympathy.”
The term empathy is used with special, though not exclusive, reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing. With other works of art, a spectator may, by a kind of introjection, feel himself involved in what he observes or contemplates. The use of empathy is an important part of the counseling technique developed by the American psychologist Carl Rogers.
The practice of empathy, as an analytical method based on analogical thinking, may have its onset in the very early days of any human being’s existence, since babies learn empathy by imitating those who care for them. There is no way to compare, measure, observe, prove or disprove that the exact emotion is experienced identically by different people, but people may identify deeply with each other and this identification can lead to improved understanding and emotional intimacy between people.
Empathy is more important in social settings than it is psychologically. The existence of empathy is a sign of healthy personal identity, self-awareness, self-worth, and in the positive sense, self-love. When empathy is absent, an antisocial or psychopathic person can more easily exploit and abuse others.
In our time, since most of the social institutions that help develop empathy, like nuclear and extended family, clan, neighborhood, village, church, temple or belief system, have been impaired, narcissistic conduct has started to take the place of empathy. This is widely reflected in the litigiousness, lack of tolerance, and violence that replicates in our popular culture, in the media, movies, video games, in international dealings and so on.
The presence of empathy is the pathway leading to sympathy, mercy, pity, charity, and the joy of giving; therefore, making for a better and more civilized society.
Let’s look into empathy more closely.
What is the purpose of empathy?
Purposes of empathy are:
To show that you care about the other person.
To foster meaningful, helpful, close relationships.
To learn more about other people.
To direct communication towards important emotional topics.
To let the other person know he is accepted as he is, therefore encouraging him to open up.
To reduce your irritation with others because you understand them better. If you understand them, you forgive them.
To reduce prejudice and eradicate negative assumptions, with the emphasis on the word “assumptions.”
To discover, eventually, that everyone is understandable and everyone’s psyche can be penetrated into.
The practice of empathy is difficult. Each person learns empathy to a degree as a matter of growing up and living in the world, but how do we really practice empathy?
How to practice empathy:
I. Listen, listen, listen. The idea is first you really listen; then, you react. Listening is hard work and everyone can get distracted. Even when we get distracted, we need to pull ourselves together and get back on track to the best of our abilities.
During Listening, to listen effectively, especially in therapy…
1. One has to stop comparing himself to the other person. For example thinking, “I had it rougher than him.” “He is smarter than me.” “His spouse is way better than mine.”
2. One must stop remembering his own experiences on the same subject while the other person is talking.
3. One must not consider the verbal give and take as intellectual debate with the goal of putting the other person down.
4. One must not think he knows everything, so he doesn’t need to listen to the other person.
5. One must not laugh off what the other one is saying or try to change the topic before it gets too serious.
6. One must stop placating the other person by saying, “You’re right.” “I agree.” “He did that to you! Really! What a jerk!” etc.
7. One has to stop trying to read the other person’s mind. For example, “He insists he loves his wife. That may subconsciously mean he doesn’t.” “He is looking out of the window when he says he didn’t do it.” “He may think I’m stupid if I tell him that…”
8. One has to stop thinking about his next step or his answer before the other person finishes talking. For example, “How shall I react to this one when I have to answer him? If I smile or nod, he may take it that I approve of his crime.”
9. One has to stop filtering what the other person says by concentrating to hear only specific matters or significant remarks.
10. One must not judge that a statement by the other person is crazy, extreme, juvenile, boring, or aggressive.
II. Let the other person feel that he is heard. Nobody is perfect at this, but we can get better in time if we work on it.
1. One way to do this is to reflect the other person’s feeling. “This really hurts you.” “You feel left out.” “You feel unimportant.” The focus on the other person’s feelings encourages him to talk those feelings out and explore those feelings practically on his own.
2. Asking too many questions, giving judgmental responses or premature advice or reassurance before the other person finishes his words is counterproductive. It takes away from the other person’s ability to solve his problem on his own by talking it out. Telling him your own story or experience is not so bad if you don’t forget the other persons concern, pain or problem.
3. One of the most common reasons for misunderstandings is our emotional reaction to what the other person says. If the person says something that sets off an emotion (like anger, insecurity, hurt, insult to our beliefs, etc.) that is not related to the person speaking but is related to the listener, the listener may get distracted and therefore may miscalculate the other person’s problem.
4. A correct response embraces the gist of the other person’s feelings. This may sound like the listener is parroting the talker, but it is an effective way of letting the person know you’re interested and listening, for example, “You feel hurt,” “You are overwhelmed.” If we show no reaction or make no comment while the other person talks, he may take it as disinterest or disapproval or he may think we do not understand him.
5. As the other person is talking, it is possible for an empathizer to guess beforehand what the other person is feeling and provide an additional insight. At that point, at an opportune moment in the conversation, an interpretation more or less in a question form may add to the talker’s understanding of himself. For example, “Could it be that your mother is acting this way, because she can’t stand losing you?” or “I’m wondering if your wife wanted to help you when she said that to your boss.”
Empathy, in general, is an important asset; however, introspection and empathy alone cannot make for a perfect society. Better societies are made by the feelings and actions that sprout as the results of empathy. Because of that objective, empathy becomes the key that opens positive human interaction.