What is Empathy?
Empathy in its basic form is about imagining what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. The concept has been around for many years, and its foundation is captured in the timeless Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you’d like them to do to you.”
There are many definitions of empathy out there, but there are two basic forms which merit mentioning:
- Emotional Empathy (Affective empathy): the drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental/emotional state.
- Cognitive Empathy: identifying another’s mental/emotional state.
In the context of Compassionate Communication, we embrace the “Cognitive Empathy” as the form of empathy which simultaneously supports autonomy and understanding of someone’s mental/emotional state – i.e. the person empathizing does not take on the feelings of the other person. This is contrasted with Sympathy or empathic concern for another, related to a wish to see them happier, feeling compassion, perhaps taking on some of the emotions of the other person. Cognitive Empathy is just called Empathy when practicing NVC.
Empathy is a basic acknowledgment of someone’s experience, especially their heart energy – in the form of feelings and needs. Note that empathy can be practiced quietly, just by being present and listening with care to the other person. In fact, words can get in the way of empathy, especially when what we share has more to do with us than the other person.
Our Western culture seems more comfortable with other types of responses to someone in pain, which are not empathy:
- Giving advice: I think you should…
- One-upping: That’s nothing; wait to you hear my story.
- Educating: Okay, here’s what you need to know.
- Consoling: It wasn’t your fault; you did your best.
- Storytelling: that reminds me of the time when…
- Shutting down: Cheer up! Don’t feel so bad. Don’t be sad.
- Interrogating: What happened? Then what did she say?
- Explaining: I would have called, but…
- Correcting: That’s not how it happened.
- Sympathizing: Oh, you poor thing. I’m so sad this happened to you.
The problem with these responses is that they take the focus away from the other person with the issue, thereby lessening the chances for healing and understanding that empathy can provide. These other responses are not necessarily bad, and do have a place in casual conversation. It’s just important to be aware of the differences, especially if our intention is to support the other person. I have found that it is easiest to support others when I’ve received enough empathy for myself – i.e. we’re fully aware and connected to our own thoughts, feelings and needs. This empathy could have been provided by someone else, it could be part of the current dialogue, or we could have gone through a process of self-empathy – were we acknowledge our own thoughts, feelings and needs.
When using words, we might ask if the other person is feeling sad, or lonely, or any of the feelings that match what we’re hearing. Once we identify the feeling, we can ask about the needs alive in the person – e.g. are you wanting more respect and mutuality?
Our empathy is a guess, an inquiry into the other person’s experience – not a statement of fact (which could annoy and drive away the person we’re trying to support). We don’t have to be right in order for the guesses to be supportive. It is important, however, that we give the other person time to process the empathic guess, to see how/if it lands for them. In order to best support their process, our empathic guesses would be short and concise, giving the other person most of the time for thinking, feeling and speaking.
Empathy is one of the foundations for connection; the other side of empathy is honest expression. When empathy and honesty are mutually shared between two or more people, they may begin to experience connection and higher form of intelligence which wasn’t present before.