Empathy Means ‘I know nothing’

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I was wondering about empathy. Empathy is the ability to recognise and respond appropriately to the emotions of others. We call a person ’empathetic’ when they are able to recognise another’s emotional state and respond in the way which ‘fits’ with what that other person needs.

The last part of the latter sentence is critical; understanding that someone is frustrated or sad, for example, is not enough. In order to empathise you must then be able to respond instinctively to their need, in that moment. Respond empathetically and you hit the right emotional tone in your response.

To be able to do this one must be able to ‘feel’ what the other person is feeling. This is neither as natural nor as easy as many people believe. Though the first part is relatively clear – most of us can read the obvious signs of an emotion – it is what we do with that information which is crucial.

It can happen that because we have recognised the emotion, we assume that we understand the other person’s experience. But understanding that someone is feeling something is not the same as understanding what they are feeling, what it means to them, or how they would like us to respond.

Different responses

For example, people respond to stress in many different ways, while one person will get voluble and angry another will become withdrawn and silent; tears can mean sadness, but also relief, or even joy.

I once met a man who, having spent many years studying eastern philosophy and psychology, considered himself a ‘people person’ who was in tune with others. True, he took time to understand what others were saying, and he seemed compassionate and caring. He could recognise the signals when someone was in emotional turmoil, when they seemed stressed, or when they felt uncomfortable for example. But – and this is the crunch – he could not accurately interpret what those signals indicated people might need.

Instead, he would use his understanding of human nature to construct an interpretation. This is where he fell short because he didn’t truly empathise (put himself in someone else’s shoes). Instead, he’d jump to a conclusion based on what he thought they were feeling.

How to empathise

As humans, we pretty gifted at getting along together and evolution has endowed us with natural skills to help us do this. This is generally known as Emotional Intelligence (EI), in which the capacity to empathise is a core element.

EI is different from intellectual understanding, and thinking you know how someone is feeling shouldn’t require intellectual effort like analysis and deduction.

Think of it this way, if I know someone seems unhappy or tense, all I reliably know is what I’m seeing and sensing; to know what they are feeling I must sensitively enquire.

The temptation is to jump to a conclusion based on what I’d be feeling in a similar situation. This might be a useful guide, but it goes horribly wrong when we stop at that point, project our own beliefs, and assume that another’ feelings are the same as our own would be.

Empathy – recognising someone is feeling something – is the first step, to truly connect with someone though you have to suspend your own beliefs for a moment and wonder about their experience.

Be curious, and ask.

What do you think? Please share a comment.