"Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see."
― Leslie Jamison, U.S. author (1983- )
How does it feel to be you? And how does it feel to be me? We can't tell, because our only experience of living is to be ourselves. That doesn't mean that we can't feel another person's joy, pain, excitement, or sadness. We can all learn how to empathize.
My father passed away almost three years ago. He was diagnosed with cancer only a few months beforehand, so we were prepared to a degree. We didn't know that he would pass on so quickly, though.
Because I'm an external lecturer at a university, I have to make my schedule available a few months in advance. At the time I did so in January, I didn't even know that my dad was terminally ill.
It so happened that I was scheduled to start with a new group of students only a week after my dad passed on. We said our final goodbyes to my dad on Saturday, and the following Tuesday, I stood in a lecture hall at 8 a.m. wearing my "best face."
I was OK for the first hour. And the second. But halfway through the second session, grief overtook me. After briefly excusing myself from the class to get a handle on my emotions, I returned and explained my situation to them.
The next thing I knew, a rugged looking six-foot-plus man stood up. "Don't worry," he said, "my dad also passed away two months ago." With tears running into his beard he added, "I understand that it hurts a lot." Then he turned to the rest of the class and said, "We need a five-minute smoke break anyway, don't we?"
What stood out to me is that he did not get up and say, "I'm sorry to hear about your dad. Would you like us to give you a few minutes?" That would have been kind and sympathetic of him – and wholly acceptable.
However, I realised that he had acted on all three levels of empathy. He showed cognitive empathy (understanding), emotional empathy (feeling) and empathic concern (taking action).
He understood my hurt, and he felt my pain through his pain. He intuitively knew that I would probably welcome a short break, and he took his empathy a step further: by telling the class that they needed a break, he made sure that I could take a short break.
Isn't it amazing that this man, a stranger to me, knew exactly how to empathise with me? How wonderful is that?
During last Friday's #MTtalk, we asked how people want others to empathize with them. Here are the questions we asked, and some of the responses:
Q1. How much is empathy a conscious or unconscious reaction, and does that matter?
@itstamaragt Some people are naturally empathetic, but it doesn't mean those who aren't can't work on their empathy skills. I believe people make a conscious decision when applicable, but a subconscious decision when emotions are involved.
@KrisGiere Empathy is intentional. Whether or not someone is more naturally inclined to empathize may be subconscious, but to act on it is intentional.
Q2. Is empathy a selfless or a selfish reaction? Please explain.
Contrary to what we might want to believe, empathy isn't always selfless reaction.
@nymelonballer This is where the rubber meets the road. If it's simply recognizing someone's emotion, then it can be selfish. If it's caring and commiserating, then it can be selfless. This is where I struggle with how much is innate versus what can be taught.
@MarkRyanPod It's the reaction to understanding. Having the actual knowledge of what someone is going through, and the willingness to sit beside them and be silent until they are ready to let you in.
Q3. What kind of empathy have you received mostly?
There are three levels of empathy: cognitive empathy (understanding), emotional empathy (feeling), and empathic concern (taking action). It's clear, though, that we don't all require the same type or amount of empathy.
@Midgie_MT I've received emotional empathy, where others have connected to me on an emotional level and the feelings I have felt.
@BrainBlenderTec I don’t require a lot of empathy, as most people are just intimidated until they get to know me. And then it's more loyalty than anything.
Q4. Do you prefer privacy, politeness or empathy? Why?
Your preference probably depends on the context and circumstances. Here's another way of looking at it:
@GenePetrovLMC If someone is closer to me, I would appreciate more empathy. Someone who is more or less a stranger - I'd prefer privacy. Some where in between (an acquaintance) politeness would work.
@BRAVOMedia1 Privacy & politeness should be together with empathy: when you care, you also respect.
Q5. Is there a line for you where receiving empathy becomes uncomfortable? Why is that?
@JusChas That line is when you empathize with what you know to be true about my situation, but then you attempt to be my therapist and dive deeper. Big no.
@harrisonia Yes! When someone is showing me empathy, they shouldn't ask probing questions. They should ask general questions of concern that allow me to voluntarily share as much/little as I'd be comfortable with at that moment.
Q6. When have you felt patronized by empathy? What happened?
@MicheleDD_MT When I was diagnosed with cancer. People who had little interaction with me dropped by my office and started crying. Not helpful and I felt their response was more a display of pity than understanding what I was going through.
@Yolande_MT I feel patronised when someone tries to become a coach or counsellor and "fix" me or the situation. Their intent is usually good, but their sensitivity meter is out of whack.
Q7. What might be the best way to respond to unhelpful empathy?
@Jim_Easter Figure out if it is clumsy or nasty; clumsy gets compassion and education, nasty gets short shrift.
@bentleyu With an honest dialogue. At its core, empathy is communication, honesty and trust. Apply those principles in dealing with the situation. Open up and let them know.
Q8. Which is most helpful: feeling empathy or showing empathy?
@MarkC_Avgi IMO, you must feel empathy to properly show it. Feeling it means little to the one who needs it, if you do not show it.
@33ang33lcuddles Showing empathy is more effective, but it has to start with feeling. Sometimes it’s not easy to know how to show empathy, especially if you don't know the full story.
Q9. How can you be "tuned in" to how someone wants to receive empathy?
@TheCraigKaye Ask them, and then actively listen.
@carriemaslen The simple answer to this question is to listen, look for clues, and ask! Also following "The Golden Rule" [treat others as you wish to be treated yourself] is always a good practice.
Q10. How can you create a culture where people know how to empathize with one another?
@MikeBarzacchini The calmness of just being with someone, of being present and fully listening, often radiates a deep energy of empathy. Truly listening to someone may be a most radical empathetic act.
@blondepreneur Regularly reflect how and where we can improve our empathy, and have regular check ins with ourselves too see if we are being too tough on ourselves too as well as others. It's a daily process and practice.
To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat, here.
When working with people, you have to develop sensitivity to know when to let go of issues. You also have to allow yourself to let go of things that you've been holding on to. During our next #MTtalk we're going to discuss knowing when to let go. We'd like to know what you find most difficult to let go of. Please vote in our Twitter poll, here.
In the meantime, here are some resources relating to the topic we discussed:
Boost Your Interpersonal Skills
What's Empathy Got to Do With It?
Emotional Intelligence in Leadership
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Honestly, empathy makes me uncomfortable. When someone tells me they 'understand how [you] feel', I cringe. No one can truly understand how you feel, because they don't have the experience or perspective on life that you have. All of our experiences are based on our prior learning, and no one else has that but you.
Thanks GB for sharing your experiences with empathy. I hear what you are saying that the other person doesn't have our experience or perspective, so they can't truly understand how we are experiencing a particular event. Although they might have had a similar experience, they have not had the same prior experiences which contribute to how we feel at that moment in time! Everyone is different and everyone reacts to things based on their previous experiences. - Midgie, MT