Woman tapping shoulder of frustrated female friend. Image credit: https://www.pexels.com/@liza-summer

Empathy - What is it?  Why is it important? And how to be more empathetic

What is empathy?

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  We can definitely build on this.the word “empathy” was invented in 1908 by psychologists looking for a way to translate the German term Einfühlung, which literally means “feeling in.” https://business.tutsplus.com/tutorials/how-to-develop-empathy--cms-32173

Here's how various experts have defined it:

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own.https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/collections/201604/extreme-empathy

Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character.https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/empathy  

Empathy involves understanding others' anxiety and making a genuine effort to reduce it.Bruna Martinuzzi 

I think empathy at a deep level is the understanding that someone else's world is just as real as yours.Stanford psychologist Jamil Zakihttps://www.npr.org/2020/08/31/907943965/you-2-0-empathy-gym

According to science

There are four components of empathy, according to neuroscience:Fishbane, M. D. (2016). The neurobiology of relationships. In T. L. Sexton & J. Lebow (Eds.), Handbook of family therapy (pp. 48–65). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, which cites: Decety, J., & Jackson, P.L. (2004). The functional  neuroarchitecture of human empathy. Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3, 71–100. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534582304267187

  1. Resonance, an automatic process that happens below conscious awareness.  Mirror neurons simulate the same firing patterns of neurons that accompany emotions and actions.
  2. Cognitive empathy, where one person consciously thinks about how another feels.  It occurs in the prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for higher cognitive functions.
  3. Self-regulation. Since (affective) empathy is "your pain in my heart," a person who experiences this needs a mechanism to regulate the pain.
  4. A boundary between one's self and another. FMRI scans reveal areas of the somatosensory system that are activated only in response to one's own pain, not empathy for another's pain.

Empathy is a form of "perspective-taking."  Perspective-taking is defined as "the ability to understand how a situation appears to another person and how that person is reacting cognitively and emotionally to the situation."Gehlbach, H. (2004). “A new perspective on perspective taking: a multidimensional approach to conceptualizing an aptitude.” Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 207-234. In other words, empathy, technically called emotional perspective-taking, is the ability to understand how the other person is reacting emotionally.  Another type of perspective-taking is cognitive perspective-taking, also called Theory of Mind (ToM).  It is the ability to understand how another person thinks about a situation.

I was unable to find the source of the phrase, "Empathy is your pain in my heart."  In fact, this phrase often appears with the word "compassion" substituted for "empathy."  The terms are indeed very closely related.  

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman categorize empathy differently from the neuroscientists mentioned above.  In addition to cognitive empathy, they add emotional (affective) empathy and compassionate empathy.  Cognitive empathy involves recognizing (in the mind) what the other person is feeling, whereas emotional empathy involves actually sharing those feelings.  Compassion adds a motivational component, making the empathetic person want to do something to help.

There is a reason why some people shy away from empathy. Empathy is painful.  Empathizing with someone's pain means experiencing it yourself. This leads to our next question: 

Why is empathy important?

There are so many reasons:

  • It leads to better relationships.
  • It helps build trust.
  • It is an important component of emotional intelligence.
  • People with greater empathy are more likely to have stronger conflict resolution skills.
  • Those with greater empathy skills work better within a team.
  • Highly empathetic people are more prosocial, and this is linked to higher levels of performance, productivity, and creativity at work.
  • According to Loevenger, a high level of maturity includes deep empathy for others.
  • A well-rounded person shows empathy, listens rather than judges, and understands others' viewpoints.
  • Empathy is the only effective way to help people change counterproductive beliefs.
  • Listening with empathy is a relationship-building "currency" that builds social capital.
  • It is a crucial element of critical thinking, enabling a person to overcome biases and see multiple perspectives.
  • It empowers a person to stand up for what is right despite the self-interest, prejudice, and ruthlessness of others.
  • The best leaders demonstrate empathy.
  • It is a protection against the trend toward self-objectification (as in the selfie craze).
  • In difficult situations, it can be useful in defusing tension.
  • Empathy is the most important and essential aspect of social awareness and is directly related to self-awareness.
  • You will become a better manager or leader.
  • It plays an important role in meeting the needs of customers when developing some sort of product or service.
  • It is an important component of effective negotiation.
  • Empathy training increases happiness, mental and physical health, social and marital relationships, and decreases cortisol (the stress hormone).
  • When you face situations that are almost impossible to overcome, it can help you keep going.

To illustrate the latter point, consider U.S. Navy SEAL training.  Hell Week, considered the most difficult military training in the world, is required for candidates to qualify for this elite position.  Only 25 percent of candidates complete this training.  SEAL officer Eric Greitens identifies empathy as a critical quality for those who succeed:

They had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the "fist" of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others.Quoted in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister.

How can we build empathy?

Start by recognizing emotions

According to Mona Fishbane, also cited above, "Attunement to another requires attunement to one’s own emotions." Since mirror neurons in our brains fire automatically in response to the emotions of another, we need training to recognize emotions we encounter in ourselves and others.

Thoughts about another's feelings - cognitive empathy - can be incorrect.  We should consider our impressions as simply that: impressions.  You can verify them by asking the other person how they feel.  They will appreciate our interest along with the opportunity to be understood.

Suspend judgment

A person cannot be both compassionate and judgmental at the same time.  Instead of judging the person or situation, interrupting and sharing your personal experiences, or offering a solution, focus on understanding how the person feels, and why they feel that way.

Instead of thinking how you would feel in their exact situation, consider a situation you have been in where you felt the same way as they do. According to Justin Bariso, author of EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, "It is the feeling of when you failed that you want to recall, not the event."

Listen empathetically

Resisting the urge to interrupt or to offer advice is essential.  Try to see things from their point of view.  Ask thoughtful questions, listen to the answers, and ask in a way that encourages self-disclosure.

Talk face to face if at all possible.  According to Fishbane, "Exercises that include eye contact between partners or family members increase empathy and emotional awareness."  Technology is no substitute.

Use your imagination

You can ask yourself, "If I were in this situation, how would I feel? What would I need?’

Another way to use imagination to stimulate empathy is to read literature, especially fiction.  According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.” I found a lot of scientific evidence to back this up.

Referring to mirror neurons, Dora B. Rowe wrote:

Even when neither the situation nor the individual is real, a reader’s clearly defined mental image of the thoughts, feelings, and physical and emotional responses (mentalizing) activates the cortex as if the event actually took place, albeit it to a somewhat lesser intensity.Rowe, D. B. (2018). The “Novel” Approach: Using Fiction to Increase Empathy. Virginia Libraries, 63(1). https://doi.org/10.21061/valib.v63i1.1474 

Rowe identified completeness of imagery and identification with characters and their experiences as the basis for empathic growth.  In her opinion, readers should enhance their empathy by imagining what they read.  Another way to enhance empathy with fiction is to have students create it themselves.

Researchers John Stansfield and Louise Bunce have found strong correlations between exposure to fiction and cognitive empathy, and between transportation and affective empathy.  An emotional response after a story induces immediate helping behaviors.Stansfield, J., and Bunce, L., 2014. The Relationship Between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components. Journal of European Psychology Students, 5(3), pp.9–18. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jeps.ca 

Prioritize social capital

Today, "financial freedom" is more valued than ever before.  However, we might be emotionally impoverishing ourselves as a result.

Michael Kraus of Yale University has found that poor people make more accurate inferences about others' emotions. Those who are rich have difficulty reading other people's emotions, and they lack empathy and compassion towards others. This deficit stems primarily from their lack of dependence on others.

Those who are wealthy worry more about what others think of them and are very likely to blame other people when things go wrong. A contributing factor to poor quality personal, family, and romantic relationships among the rich is their inability to apply flexibility, empathy, and open-mindedness when faced with uncertainties in relationships

Other methods

Learn horseback riding.  According to Sarah Evers Conrad, among many other good qualities, horseback riding teaches empathy.  "Without these traits, the rider will not go far in their horsemanship studies."

Practice self-distancing.  Imagine the benefit of writing a narrative from another person's perspective. The technique is especially valuable for those who want to empathize with someone they aren't getting along with.  Writing the narrative from the other person's perspective made it much easier to see their point of view.

Get religion.  While religion is growing less popular these days for good reasonReasons include religion's involvement in politics, hypocrisy, and child abuse, to name a few.  I am a very religious person myself, but I recognize that not everything about religion is good., studies show the more religious a person is, the more he or she is likely to show empathy.

Take action

Bariso urges you to practice compassionate empathy by asking the other person directly how you can help. Ask yourself: What helped me when I felt similarly? Or: What would have made a difference?

Great videos on empathy

It's Not About the Nail

When I first watched this video with my wife, I couldn't comprehend why the woman wasn't willing to consider what I considered the obvious solution.  My empathy was severely underdeveloped.  But my wife had no problem understanding.

Now I get it.  Pain victims are in need of connection before they are in need of solutions.

I wasn't laughing the first time I saw the video.  I didn't get it.  Now, every time I see the video I laugh.  I laugh at how (exaggerated but) true to life it is, and I laugh at my clueless younger self.

Brené Brown on Empathy

How can we ease someone's pain and suffering? In this beautiful animation, Dr. Brené Brown reminds us that we can only form true empathic connections if we are brave enough to be vulnerable. 

My favorite suggestions from the video:

Say, "I know what it's like down here, and you're not alone."

If I share something with you that's very difficult, I'd rather you say,
"I don't even know what to say. I'm just so glad you told me."
Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better.
What makes something better is connection.