1 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
Bonnie Jean Wasmund
“My prayer is that each of us look inside our own hearts. It takes a willingness to pause before we make an assumption. I think all this erupts because we don’t wait — we react. And the willingness to have empathy and just imagine what it would be like to be in someone else’s skin — that’s my prayer.”
Smile at each other, smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other – it doesn’t matter who it is – and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other.
Empathy takes time, and efficiency is for things, not people.
If I could be you, if you could be me
For just one hour, if we could find a way
To get inside each other’s mind
If you could see you through my eyes
Instead your own ego I believe you’d be
I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind
Walk a mile in my shoes
just walk a mile in my shoes
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Then walk a mile in my shoes
Now if we spend the day
Throwin’ stones at one another
‘Cause I don’t think, ’cause I don’t think
Or wear my hair the same way you do
Well, I may be common people
But I’m your brother
And when you strike out
You’re tryin’ to hurt me
It’s hurtin’ you, Lord HAVE mercy
just walk a mile in my shoes
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Then walk a mile in my shoes
Now there are people on reservations
And out in the ghetto
And brother there, but, for the grace of God
Go you and I,
If I only had wings of a little angel
Don’t you know, I’d fly
To the top of a mountain
And then I’d cry, cry, cry
Walk a mile in my shoes
just walk a mile in my shoes
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Then walk a mile in my shoes.
Below is a list of various definitions of empathy:
A motivation oriented towards the other.
D. M. Berger:
The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person, the capacity to sample the feelings of another or to put one’s self in another’s shoes.
A sense of similarity in feelings experienced by the self and the other, without confusion between the two individuals.
An effective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another’s emotional state or condition, and that is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel.
R. R. Greenson:
To empathize means to share, to experience the feelings of another person.
The ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another person to understand her emotions and feelings.
An effective response more appropriate to another’s situation than one’s own.
A complex form of psychological inference in which observation, memory, knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the thoughts and feelings of others.
Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.
Empathy involves the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person.
We recognize others as empathic when we feel that they have accurately acted on or somehow acknowledged in stated or unstated fashion our values or motivations, our knowledge, and our skills or competence, but especially as they appear to recognize the significance of our actions in a manner that we can tolerate their being recognized.
Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person’s thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be. There are two major elements to empathy. The first is the cognitive component: Understanding the others feelings and the ability to take their perspective; the second element to empathy is the affective component. This is an observer’s appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotional state.
“[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies…and find ourselves either momentarily or for a longer period of time in the mind of the other. We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain.”
Small deeds done are better than great deeds planned.
One who knows how to show and to accept kindness will be a friend better than any possession.
Thich Nhat Hanh:
Only your compassion and your loving kindness are invincible, and without limit.
Robert Louis Stevenson:
So long as we love we serve; So long as we are loved by others, I would almost say that we are indispensable; And no one is useless while they have a friend.
Stop the habit of wishful thinking and start the habit of thoughtful wishes.
Tell them, that, to ease them of their griefs, Their fear of hostile strokes, their aches, losses, Their pangs of love, with other incident throes. That nature’s fragile vessel doth sustain In life’s uncertain voyage, I will some kindness do them.
Empathy is the most radical of human emotions.
There is a story about a little girl and her friend. In the course of the day, her friend lost her favorite doll which she’d brought over to play with. She was heartbroken, and sat on the steps and began to cry. When the first little girl’s mother came outside to check on the girls, she found them both sitting on the step sobbing. When she asked what was wrong, she was told through the tears that the little friend, Suzie had lost her favorite doll. The mother looked puzzled for a bit, then asked her daughter, “did you lose your doll too?” “No”, the daughter sobbed. “Then what’s wrong with you?” “Nothing” she sobbed. “I’m just helping Suzie cry.” That is empathy.
Stephen R. Covey
Communication by empathy is a talent that few possess.
I hope to leave my children a sense of empathy and pity and a will to right social wrongs.
A mother is only as happy as her saddest child.
The good mother, owing to her deep empathy with her infant, reflects in her face his feelings; this is why the child sees himself in her face as if in a mirror and finds himself as he sees himself in her. The not good enough mother fails to reflect the infant’s feelings in her face because she is too preoccupied with her own concerns.
To show empathy is to identify with another’s feelings. It is to emotionally put yourself in the place of another. The ability to empathize is directly dependent on your ability to feel your own feelings and identify them.
If you have never felt a certain feeling, it will be hard for you to understand how another person is feeling. If you have never felt embarrassed or defiant, you will probably not understand those feelings. Reading about a feeling and knowing about it is very different than actually experiencing it for yourself. People who have actually experienced the widest range of feelings — the great depths of depression, or the heights of joy, for example, — are the one’s who are most able to empathize with the greatest number of people from all walks of life. When we say that someone “can’t relate” to other people, it is probably because they haven’t experienced, acknowledged or accepted many feelings of their own. The first step to empathy is that we must be able to experience our own emotions.
Many people (young and old) in today’s society have grown out of touch with their own feelings. What can cause a person to lose touch with their own feelings and their natural sense of conscience? The proliferation of divorces, the breakdown of the “family, the desensitization of violence by our media and entertainment industry, internet pornography, and child abuse, have all contributed to deep, unmet emotional needs and the ensuing “emotional numbness” that plagues our society. People simply shut down and turn off. They do not experience their own pain, and therefore, they have no compassion for the pain of another. Nor do they have any empathy. People have taken to numbing themselves from their feelings through drugs, alcohol, etc. and/or have developed elaborate defense mechanisms such as rationalization, justification, denial, intellectualization, moralizing, preaching, proselytizing, self-righteousness, projection, suppression, etc. in an attempt to block the pain they would endure if they allowed themselves to feel. People who are not in touch with their own feelings are also not likely to have a sense of conscience. They feel no remorse, no guilt for hurting others. In the absence of a conscience, their behavior must be controlled by fear, threats and punishment, or by separation from society. This all comes at a huge social cost.
We need to become aware of what we are actually feeling — to acknowledge, identify, “be in touch with”, and accept our feelings. Only then can we empathize with others. Only then will we have a sense of conscience. From the platform of understanding our own feelings, we can then begin to become aware of what other people are feeling. It would be a lot easier to be aware of other people’s emotions if they would simply tell us how they felt. But since most people don’t, we have to resort to asking questions, reading between the lines, guessing, and trying to interpret non-verbal cues. Emotionally expressive people are easiest to read because their eyes and faces are constantly letting us know how they are feeling. There are many others however who have become experts at hiding their emotions. Being empathetic means being constantly on vigilance to others’ cues, particularly the non-verbal ones such as facial expressions. We need to have high powered emotional radar, constantly searching the horizon for faint signals of emotional distress. The more “blips” we are able to pick up, the more we can help people. Empathy radar doesn’t work very well when it’s forced to see through “pride” and “self-centeredness”. If you are constantly focused only on yourself, it’s almost impossible to be aware of, and tend to the emotional needs of others.
Once we have figured out how another person feels, we can show empathy by acknowledging the emotion. We can say things like “I can see that you are really bothered by this” or “I can understand why you are upset”. Many times the simple act of showing empathy is just as meaningful to the person hurting as having a solution to their problem. We can also show empathy through a simple sign of affection such as hug or a supportive hand on the shoulder. Though empathy is usually used in reference to sensing someone else’s painful feelings, it can also apply to someone’s positive feelings of success, accomplishment, pride, achievement etc., like giving someone a high five when they do something great.
While our innate emotional sensitivity gives us the ability to feel empathy, it is the virtues of wisdom and courage that helps us decide what to do when we feel empathy. It is of little use to have empathy for others and not have the courage to act on it, to reach out to others and give them emotional support.
Empathy is certainly something we could use more of in today’s society. Our human ability to empathize is often the first step on the road to loving and serving our fellowman.
The Ethics of Care
In the 2007 book The Ethics of Care and Empathy, philosopher Michael Slote introduces a theory of care-based ethics that is grounded in empathy. His claim is that moral motivation does, and should, stem from a basis of empathic response. He claims that our natural reaction to situations of moral significance are explained by empathy. He explains that the limits and obligations of empathy and in turn morality are natural. These natural obligations include a greater empathic, and moral obligation to family and friends, along with an account of temporal and physical distance. In situations of close temporal and physical distance, and with family or friends, our moral obligation seems stronger to us than with strangers at a distance naturally. Slote explains that this is due to empathy and our natural empathic ties. He further adds that actions are wrong if and only if they reflect or exhibit a deficiency of fully developed empathic concern for others on the part of the agent.
Empathy has many different definitions. They cover a broad spectrum, ranging from feeling a concern for other people that creates a desire to help them, experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions, knowing what the other person is thinking or feeling, to blurring the line between self and other.
Empathy for Troubled Kids
America’s tragic spike in teen suicides should cause us to reflect on why we are having this problem and possible solutions. Teenagers who commit suicide are silently screaming for help. They are lonely, in great pain (be it emotionally, psychologically, physically, socially, or spiritually) and looking for a way to relieve their pain. Our coaches, teachers, counselors, pastors, youth directors, collectively as a people focused on people must become more effective in seeing, feeling, and mitigating this pain. We can and should be better than this.
A solution to this problem is to add “empathy” or “emotional intelligence” into our daily lexicon. Those of us charged with ministering to the souls and spirits of todays youth, need to understand, internalize, and practice having empathy for kids. What do these words mean? In layman’s terms they mean ‐
“feeling someone’s pain”
“truly understanding something from the other person’s point of view”
One of the ways we can teach people what it means to truly understand something from another’s perspective is by presenting the topic in the opposite extreme by stating that, “I will NEVER be able to completely understand something from a female’s perspective.” Why is that? – because I am a male. Or, for example, in the movie Ghost when Patrick Swayze’s character was actually transformed into the skin of Whoppi Goldberg ‘s character. These “unreal” examples should help explain what empathy is – literally trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
To truly understand something from someone else’s perspective we must genuinely care for that kid – and not just from a status or structured relational perspective. We must care for the kid as a person. Ways to work on or improve empathy include:
1. Active listening techniques ‐ “this is what I hear you saying” or “let me just try to explain how I think you are feeling.” Ask the kid about their likes, their dis-likes, what’s on their mind. Quantity time is as important as quality. Remember, part of the problem is that in all likelihood there is no adult spending lots of time with this kid.
2. Encourage the teenager to open up to you ‐ “If something is really bothering you, you’ve got to talk to someone about it. It doesn’t have to be me, but how about the school counselor or someone from church, or social services or a friend, etc.”
3. Working to let the teenager express how they are feeling and why they are feeling that way – “What are you feeling right now? Depressed? Anxious? Lonely? Why do you think you are feeling this way? Others on the team, in the class, or in the school may be feeling the same way.”
4. If you as a coach or teacher have even the slightest inkling that one of your kids is having a problem, DO NOT let “I’m fine” be an answer to , “How are you doing/feeling?”
5. Actively try to monitor kids’ feelings and emotions. Don’t simply view your team members or students as a means to accomplish and end. Take the time to think about what your kids are feeling. Ask yourself, “when was the last time I thought about how _____ is feeling?”
Conversely, empathy does not mean agreeing with another person. Empathy is not part of winning an argument or proving you are right (and the other person is wrong). Empathy has nothing to do with “one‐upsmanship” or showing you are better than someone else. It simply means understanding something from another person’s perspective.
It goes without saying that some coaches label players who ask for “help” as being weak, soft, a wimp, and other worse and more derogatory names. There is no place on our team for this label or for people who do this labeling. Obviously the necessity of our team to produce Warriors for a very complex game means we need tough, confident, and competent players. Adding empathy to that list will only improve the team.
By Bruna Martinuzzi
A few weeks ago, I came across a bumper sticker that said: “I am not good at empathy. Will you settle for sarcasm?” The humor in the bumper sticker led me to think of the slight unease or self-conscious discomfort that many people feel when a term such as “empathy” is introduced in a business environment. Notions of “touchy-feely”, spring to mind.
While empathy is a right brain activity, it is far from being a touchy-feely topic. At its core, empathy is the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly. The fact that empathy is an important component of effective relationships has been proven: In studies by Dr. Antonio Damasio (outlined in his book: “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.”), medical patients who had damage to part of the brain associated with empathy showed significant deficits in relationship skills, even though their reasoning and learning abilities remained intact.
Indeed, empathy is valued currency. It allows us to create bonds of trust, it gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking; it helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations, it sharpens our “people acumen” and informs our decisions.
A formal definition of Empathy is the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings and motives. It’s our capacity to recognize the concerns other people have. Empathy means: “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” or “seeing things through someone else’s eyes”.
There are numerous studies that link empathy to business results. They include studies that correlate empathy with increased sales, with the performance of the best managers of product development teams and with enhanced performance in an increasingly diverse workforce. A few of these studies can be viewed on the site of The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations.
Yes, increasingly, the topic of empathy is encroaching on the business world. We are now even seeing terms such as “empathy marketing” and “empathy selling”. Not long ago, I came across the term “user empathy”, referring to user interface.
Along those lines, in his book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Daniel Pink predicts that power will reside with those who have strong right-brain (interpersonal) qualities. He cites three forces that are causing this change: Abundance, Asia and Automation. “Abundance” refers to our increasing demand for products or services that are aesthetically pleasing; “Asia” refers to the growing trend of outsourcing; “Automation” is self-explanatory. In order to compete in the new economy market, Pink suggests six areas that are vital to our success. One of which is Empathy; the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position, to imagine what they are feeling, to understand what makes people tick, to create relationships and to be caring of others: All of which is very difficult to outsource or automate, and yet is increasingly important to business.
Empathy is also particularly critical to leadership development in this age of young, independent, highly marketable and mobile workers. In a popular Harvard Business Review article entitled “What Makes a Leader?”, Dr. Daniel Goleman isolates three reasons for why empathy is so important: the increasing use of teams, (which he refers to as “cauldrons of bubbling emotions”), the rapid pace of globalization (with cross cultural communication easily leading to misunderstandings) and the growing need to retain talent. “Leaders with empathy,” states Goleman, “do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways.” This doesn’t mean that they agree with everyone’s view or try to please everybody. Rather, they “thoughtfully consider employees’ feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions.”
Empathy, then, is an ability that is well-worth cultivating. It’s a soft, sometimes abstract tool in a leader’s toolkit that can lead to hard, tangible results. But where does empathy come from? Is it a process of thinking or of emotion? From my perspective, I believe that it is both: We need to use our reasoning ability to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, concerns, motives; This means truly making an effort to stop and think for a moment about the other person’s perspective in order to begin to understand where they are coming from: And then we need the emotional capacity to care for that person’s concern; Caring does not mean that we would always agree with the person, that we would change our position, but it does mean that we would be in tune with what that person is going through, so that we can respond in a manner that acknowledges their thoughts, feelings or concerns.
So this leads me to a question that I am sometimes asked: “Can you teach someone to be empathetic?” We all know some people who are naturally and consistently empathetic – these are the people who can easily forge positive connections with others. They are people who use empathy to engender trust and build bonds; they are catalysts who are able to create positive communities for the greater good. But even if empathy does not come naturally to some of us, I firmly believe that we can develop this capacity.
Here are a few practical tips you might consider to help you do this:
- Listen – truly listen to people. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to others’ body language, to their tone of voice, to the hidden emotions behind what they are saying to you, and to the context.
- Don’t interrupt people. Don’t dismiss their concerns offhand. Don’t rush to give advice. Don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.
- Tune in to non-verbal communication. This is the way that people often communicate what they think or feel, even when their verbal communication says something quite different.
- Practice the “93% rule”. We know from a famous study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, when communicating about feelings and attitudes, words – the things we say – account for only 7% of the total message that people receive. The other 93% of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language. It’s important, then, to spend some time to understand how we come across when we communicate with others about our feelings and attitudes.
- Use people’s name. Also remember the names of people’s spouse and children so that you can refer to them by name.
- Be fully present when you are with people. Don’t check your email, look at your watch or take phone calls when a direct report drops into your office to talk to you. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if your boss did that to you?
- Smile at people.
- Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, when they speak up in meetings. A simple thing like an attentive nod can boost people’s confidence.
- Give genuine recognition and praise. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things. When you give praise, spend a little effort to make your genuine words memorable: “You are an asset to this team because..”; “This was pure genius”; “I would have missed this if you hadn’t picked it up.”
- Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions about their hobbies, their challenges, their families, their aspirations.
Empathy is an emotional and thinking muscle that becomes stronger the more we use it. Try some of these suggestions and watch the reactions of those you work with. I believe you will notice some positive results.
Years ago, I had come across a saying that went something like this: the measure of a man [or woman], is how they treat someone who is of absolutely no use to them. Empathy should not be selective: It should be a daily habit. If I were to create a bumper sticker, I would say: Empathy: Don’t Leave Home Without It!
By the age of 2, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person. Even earlier, at one year of age, infants have some rudiments of empathy, in the sense that they understand that, just like their own actions, other people’s actions have goals. Sometimes, toddlers will comfort others or show concern for them as early as 24 months of age. Also during the second year, toddlers will play games of falsehood or “pretend” in an effort to fool others, and this requires that the child know what others believe before he or she can manipulate those beliefs. According to researchers who used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), children between the ages of seven and 12 appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain. Their findings, published in Neuropsychologia (June 3, 2008), is consistent with previous fMRI studies of pain empathy with adults. The research also found additional aspects of the brain were activated when youngsters saw another person intentionally hurt by another individual.
There are three stages of empathetic maturity:
Stage 1 – This most primitive pattern and not common in adults. Persons at this stage see others as fundamentally different from themselves. The rationales for another’s actions, feelings, or thoughts are not experienced as having human relevance in the sense that one’s own rationales do. Those operating at this stage perceive mutuality with others concretely.
Stage 2 – People at Stage 2 hold that their rationales for behavior are valid for everyone. And so, reasons for behaviors and feelings are legitimate to the degree they coincide with the person at Stage 2. Unlike Stage 1, the Stage 2 person sees others like him or her so long as they make sense of their world the same way. Therefore, positive regard for a sufferer perceived to be participating in negative behaviors is difficult for the Stage 2 person unless the behavior is explicable from his or her point of view. An example of such negative behavior would be AIDS as the result of sex practices not condoned by the Stage 2 observer. If the Stage 2 person believes the sufferer is responsible for the behavior, he or she will have no empathy. If the Stage 2 person can detect an acceptable reason why the sufferer is not actually responsible, for example, illness resulted from blood transfusion, beyond the sufferer’s control, then empathy emerges. Most of society operates at Stage 2.
Stage 3 – At this stage, mutuality occurs prior to any judgment about the person’s behavior. The other is perceived as human in the same way the self is experienced, based solely on being a creator of meaning rather than on the content of the meanings created. The perception of another person as responsible for a problem no longer has the power to hinder the development of empathy. If the sufferer is seen as responsible, there is no longer any need to mitigate that responsibility as a method for allowing empathy. A hallmark of Stage 3 is a person’s ability to perceive another empathetically while simultaneously and without apparent contradiction perceiving that other as responsible for problematic behavior.
A Lack of Empathy
– Hazing and Bullying in Schools
Bullying and Hazing- in the form of name-calling, exclusion, or violence – is an issue that many kids in our schools deal with on a daily basis. The resulting humiliation, isolation and pain is something that affects not only these individuals, but also all those around them, including parents, coaches, care-givers and teachers.
Here are some valuable suggestions and tips that can help lead to an increase in the acceptance and inclusion of all kids and ultimately putting an end to bullying:
• Be aware that students often feel that adult intervention is infrequent and unhelpful and, as such, fear
that telling adults will only bring more harassment from bullies.
• Be observant of a kid’s behavior, appearance and moods, particularly if one thinks that a child is ‘at
risk’ for being bullied. If a child is reluctant to attend school, investigate why and consider a negative social
experience as one reason.
• If a parent suspects something is wrong, talk with the child. Children can be reluctant to speak up for fear of retaliation or because they don’t want to “tattletale.” Whether it’s a parent or the child who initiates the conversation, speak openly and honestly – and listen! Keep the conversation at a level a child can understand. Remember that every child is different, what may not bother one child, might be extremely detrimental to another.
• Don’t blame the child. Be supportive, loving and patient. Take his/her story seriously. Let him/her
know that it’s not his/her fault and that appropriate action will be taken.
• Get details from the child about the incident(s). Try not to direct his/her responses, but ask
pertinent questions about what happened and how he/she felt/feels. Let the child know that appropriate
confidentiality will be kept, but that keeping bullying a secret is not good for anyone. Tell the child that he/
she has the right to be safe.
• Stay focused on the child and the issue. Though a parent will likely be upset and/or angry for
the child, over reacting (or under reacting) can make things more stressful for a child. Allowing emotions
to ‘take over’ can also make an objective assessment of the situation more difficult. Keeping an emotional
response in check will help one better support and advocate for the child.
• If appropriate, problem solve or brainstorm intervention strategies with the child. Giving him/her relevant information, such as the definition of bullying, at a level he/she can understand, can be helpful as well.
• Bullying or Hazing should never be ignored. Intervene immediately. Children are easily emotionally
wounded and often have few skills to cope. Follow up with the school as soon as possible. If needed, seek
help from outside sources.
• Talk with all pertinent school staff . Find out what they know and what actions, if any, they’ve
taken. Make sure that they understand the child’s situation. The staff may not be aware of a problem, but, once
they are, work collaboratively on how best to help the child. On-going communication and the continued
monitoring of resolved bullying issues is often necessary.
• Make sure that the staff speaks with the bully and victim separately . Depending on the age and needs of the child, a parent may want to be a part of the initial discussion that the staff has with the child.
• A written complaint to the district may be appropriate if the problem proves to be severe.
• Volunteering in his/her school might help one better understand the social dynamics and the underlying problems.
• Continue to assess and monitor the child. Is he/she physically and emotionally safe? If not,what further steps need to be taken? Provide on-going opportunities for continued open discussions, checking in with the child regularly. If the child becomes more withdrawn, depressed or reluctant to go to school, and/or sees a decline in his/her academic performance, then take the issue back to the school. If the school does not use appropriate actions, then one may need to go higher up in the administration.
Creating a kinder and gentler world: The positive psychology of empathy
By Paul T. P. Wong
Just imagine that we live in a kinder and gentler world, where people seek to understand rather than to be understood, show sensitivity to other people’s feelings, routinely engage in acts of kindness, and strive to make this world a better place for everyone.
Just image that we inhabit a world where conflicts are resolved through non-violence means, where all individuals are respected and valued regardless of their race and creed, and where the bounty of earth is enjoyed by all.
But where is it? Where can we find it? The Marxist experiment failed to create this new humanity and a utopian classless society. Liberal democracy of the Western world has not become the elixir of social ills. Positive psychology has been largely used as a tool for self-seeking rather than social transformation. The world remains a violent and dangerous place.
So where do we start to bring about a positive cultural revolution? What can we do to create a climate, where love and compassion reign supreme? All of the grand narratives are capable of lifting humanity up above the jungles of social Darwinism and oppressive imperialism. Unfortunately, they all become unhinged when it comes to implementation.
Perhaps, a good starting point for social change is the simple practice of empathy – the caring of the soul of the other. Simple as it may sound, it can usher in a new era, when it is embraced by enough people. What is needed is an army of people performing simple acts of empathy and compassion. Mother Theresa said, “We can do no great things – only small things with great love.” Here are a few illustrative stories:
Stories of empathy and compassion
Johnny, a 17-year old boy, has stayed in his room for three days, refusing to talk to anyone. His parents are devastated because their only son has just been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, and the prognosis is not good without an immediate bone marrow transplant. On top of that, they are worried sick about Johnny’s mental state. They hope that their pastor may be able to offer some comfort to Johnny.
When Pastor Dean shows up and reaches out to him, Johnny bursts into a rage: “Go away! Just leave me alone! God doesn’t care. Nobody cares. I don’t need your pity. What do you know about cancer? You know nothing about me. How dare you say that you understand what I am going through?”
Pastor Dean quietly says, “I understand, because I am also suffering from cancer.” At that instant, Johnny’s resistance melts away and a bond is formed.
On his way to meet his father, Jim is overcome with all sorts of conflicting emotions. He finally has the opportunity to confront the father who deserted his mother and abandoned his children almost 35 years ago. All through these years, he has been wondering what kind of man his father was. He has nursed resentment and anger, thinking of all the hardships his mother and the children had to go through. He wants to make his father feel guilty and ashamed. But all the while, he struggles with the urge to forgive and to be reconciled with his father.
Now, he feels totally confused, and at a loss for words, as he drives into the parking lot of the extended care facility, where his ailing father stays.
But Jim need not worry, because his father, slumping in a wheelchair, does not even recognize him. As Jim looks at this helpless and fragile human being with pale, sunken cheeks and half-closed eyes, he can hardly hold back his tears, and all his anger and resentment evaporate. Jim feels compelled by a powerful emotion to move forward to hold the skinny cold hand of a dying man, and say, “Dad, this is Jimmy, you son. I am so glad that I have found you. I want you to know that I love you.”
Empathy leads to compassion
She witnessed men and women, even young children, dying in the streets, rejected by local hospitals. She felt the pain of their suffering and decided to dedicate the rest of her life to serve the poorest of the poor. With a few helpers, she found a home for the dying, so that she could care for the poor and lonely homeless people, regardless of whether they were dying of AIDS or leprosy. For over 50 years, she worked selflessly helping the poor, and earned the name “Saint of the Gutters.”
Later when people asked her what made her happy, she said that her greatest joy was to care for the poor in the last stretch of their earthly journey, so that they were able to die in peace and with dignity. She told her followers: “Keep the joy of loving the poor and share this joy with all you meet. Remember works of love are works of peace. God bless you. This remarkable woman was Mother Theresa.
The nature of empathy
Simply put, empathy is the ability to experience and respond to another person’s feelings. The American Psychiatric Glossary (1994) defines it as “Awareness and understanding of another’s feelings and thoughts.” To fully understand the meaning and significance of another person’s emotions requires the capacity of perspective taking, imaging and emoting.
Emotional contagion is an example of empathy. But what is the nature of empathy? Is it an instinctive response, a trait, or an acquired skill?
Tania Singer and her associates (2004) from the Institute of Neurology, University College of London, have just published a groundbreaking study in Science. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore brain activity when people experience pain themselves as well as when they observed someone else experiencing pain.
They recruited 16 couples. They assessed brain activity in the female partner while a painful stimulation (brief electric shocks) was applied to her or her partner right hand. The women could see only their partner’s hand and a computer screen. When the women got shocked, the MRI showed their brain’s entire pain network activated, involving both sensory and affective brain regions. But when their loved ones got zapped, only the emotional part of the women’s pain network was activated, and this region includes anterior insula (AI) and anterior cingulated cortex (ACC). Interestingly, AL and ACC activation was correlated with empathy scores as measured by psychological tests; in other words, the stronger the feelings of empathy reported by the women, the greater the brain activity in their context-dependent pain regions.
This research demonstrates the neural substrate of empathy; however, automatic empathic reactions may be modulated by relational closeness and the empathetic nature of individuals.
Singer suggests that empathy is probably hardwired, because it serves two important survival functions: bonding between people, and predicting others’ needs and actions; but, it may be tempered by experience and learning.
Many questions remain unanswered: Will male subjects show similar brain activity when their female partners receive the shock? Is there a neural substrate of empathetic responses to another person’s emotional pain, such as grieving the loss of a broken relationship or mourning the death of a loved one? Are psychopaths deficient in their sympathetic brain reactions?
Typology of empathy
Perhaps, we need to be more analytical in the study of empathy. I propose that there are at least six different types of empathy, involving different regions of brain activities.
This represents the most primitive type of empathy, hardwired for survival. It is widely known that all sorts of animals respond to distress calls by members of the same species regarding dangerous (e.g., presence of a predator) or distressful events (e.g., abandonment, separation, or bereavement). Human infants can show an empathetic distress response, when they hear other infants cry (Hoffman, 1990). Typically, we may automatically withdraw our hands and say Ouch, when we see another person scream in pain when he or she touches a hot iron, even when such this person is a total stranger. Such instinctive empathy is properly hardwired, because of its apparent survival functions and universality.
Relational empathy refers to affective responses to another person’s feelings only when there is a close relationship. The closer the relationship, the more sensitive one is to another person’s feelings and conditions. A mother may experience greater pain when her child is injured. For those deeply in love, even an unintentional slight by one may cause a great deal of pain in the partner. In short, love hurts. Individuals who have been injured by love often try to escape intimate relations to avoid getting hurt again.
This is based on personal experiences. It is difficult for a single woman to understand the plight of a mother with several young children. Of course, men can never fully understand what is like to give birth to a baby. Generally speaking, individuals are more likely to be empathic to others, when they have experienced many hardships and are well acquainted with sorrows and sufferings. I am grateful that I have gone through the school of hard knocks, which has prepared me for counseling far better than any formal professional training.
Basic or primary empathy
This involves a set of skills, such as active listening, making frequent eye contact, nodding in agreement, reflecting, paraphrasing and summarizing, giving the appropriate emotional feedback verbally and non-verbally. Carl Roger (1951) believes that these empathic skills play a major role in client-centered therapy, because therapists not only need to show their interest in what clients say and how they feel, but also demonstrate an “accurate empathetic understanding.”
Advanced empathy requires the listener to go beyond verbal and non-verbal expressions, to develop an insightful awareness and understanding of another person’s intentions, desires and unspoken concerns. It requires the skill to listen with the sixth sense, to feel the pulse of the innermost being, and to make explicit what is hidden beneath consciousness. It involves the insightful construing of meaning and significance from a variety of seemingly trivial clues. It tests hypothesis about the missing pieces of the puzzle and anticipates solutions.
Carl Roger has consistently maintained that empathy is more than a set of skills. For empathy to be effective, the therapist needs to develop the attitude or mindset of empathy. In other words, empathy works, only when it comes from a person who really cares about people and who has compassionate heart. Love precedes understanding and knowledge. Love heals, even when knowledge fails. Empathy without love can be patronizing and condescending, but empathy with love never fails to build up the other person. The helping profession should be in essence a caring profession.
Now, we are getting into the “spiritual” realm, so to speak. Therapists need to undergo some sort of personal transformation and become compassionate. When therapists really care, they would be willing to remove protective barriers, and open their hearts for their clients, even at the risk of being wrong or getting hurt. For compassionate healers, the skills of empathy become their second nature, and their very presence is therapeutic to the extent that it communicates empathy, acceptance and genuineness.
Empathy and compassion
At the highest level, empathy involves not only the capacity of feeling and understanding other people’s pain, but also the compassion to reduce their suffering. But how are empathy and compassion related?
For Buddhism, compassion or Karuna has more to do with empathy than sympathy. The Buddha demands his followers to recognize the connectivity of another person’s suffering with their own suffering, and such empathy should motivate them to do something to reduce that suffering.
According to the Dalai Lama, compassion is the wish that all human beings are free from suffering, and this compassion compels us to engage in virtuous practices necessary for achieving Buddhahood. “In the first step toward a compassionate heart, we must develop our empathy or closeness to others” (p.91). Closeness means more than physical or emotional closeness; it actually means feeling concerned and responsible for another person’s well-being as much as for our own well-being. This connectivity, the brotherhood of all people, is at the heart of empathy and compassion.
Confucius comes to a similar conclusion but from a different perspective. One of the key constructs in Confucius teaching as recorded in the Analects is Jen. This word can be translated as “human being” and “humaneness”. Confucius believes in the perfecting of humanity through education by developing Jen as a universal virtue. In Analects, Jen means goodness, kindness, compassion, and tender-heartedness. It is defined as being selfless, and “the ability to take one’s own feelings as a guide” (XI 22) to understand the feelings of others.
Christianity places a distinct spiritual emphasis on compassion. Firstly, love is a supernatural gift from God rather than the product of human efforts. It is the highest spiritual gift (I Corinthians 13:13), and an unmistakable mark of a spirit-filled life (Galatians 5:22). It is God’s love in our hearts (Romans 5:5) that enables us to love God and love others.
Secondly, compassion comes from imitation of Christ. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthews 9:36). Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Just as love compelled Christ to die on the cross for sinners (Romans 5:8), so love demands his followers to model after him. He said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up this cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Finally, compassion is based on empathy. Self-love provides the criterion for loving others: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew19:19). This connectivity is more clearly expressed in the golden rule: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
In spite of their differences, all three perspectives emphasize that empathy and compassion are actually two sides of the same coin – one cannot exist without the other.
Benefits of empathy
Empathy is widely recognized as a universal virtue, closely related to many other virtues, such as love, compassion, kindness, tolerance, respect, and acceptance. Educators promote empathy as the cornerstone for moral and character development, and as an antidote to bullying and violence in schools.
The corporate world recognizes empathy as an important people skill, necessary for business success. Daniel Goldman and other psychologists consider empathy a major component of emotional intelligence, because it enables us to understand and predict the emotions and needs of others. Such knowledge can help us influence people and win friends.
In the political arena, empathy is important in vote getting. Who can resist the appeal of the former President Clinton, when he looks into your eyes with the expression: “I share your pain”? Senator Edwards’ appeal largely lies in his ability to connect viscerally to voters.
As an individual, we need empathy to survive and succeed in this complex and dangerous world. But humanity, as a whole, also needs empathy to rescue it from traveling down the road of violence and destruction.
How do we create a kinder and gentler world? The emphatic skills are important and emotional intelligence matters. But above all, we need compassionate empathy. There are different philosophical and spiritual perspectives regarding how to develop this highest form of empathy. However, the following two simple practices are universally endorsed:
Firstly, before you do anything or make any decision, simply ask yourself: How will it affect others? Will it have a negative impact on their well-being? If I were in their shoes, how would I react? This practice is basically the gold rule.
Secondly, instead of being preoccupied with your own self-interest, everyday ask yourself: What can I do to reduce other people’s suffering? How can I bring some sunshine to someone’s life? How can I make a difference in my corner of the world, here and now?
But you may wonder: what is the incentive to engage in these exercises? The answer may surprise you.
Here is the ironclad existential logic – you will find happiness and serenity only in caring for others. When these simple acts of compassionate empathy are practiced consistently by an increasing number of people, you can help create a kinder and gentler world at work, at home and in the larger community. Such a positive environment will be good for you and for others as well.
I need to conclude with a warning: Empathy can be very costly; it may even cost you your life. However, only in willingly embracing the dangers and injuries of caring, will you find healing and happiness for yourself and for others. There is no better way.