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Words of Wisdom (1) : Empathy


Empathy is an evolved ability to sense what it is another person might be feeling and thinking.

It has been and continues to be massively important for our ability to co-operate with others, and underpins on of our master strengths (or virtues) compassion.

A distinction is sometimes made between physical and cognitive empathy. Physical empathymight involve you wincing when you see someone hurt, or leaning backwards when you see someone approaching an edge. This may happen without much thinking going on your part. Cognitive empathy is more of an imaginative act, in which you try to imagine what it might be like to be the other person (or creature), to experience what they might be experiencing, to see the world from their perspective.

Humans vary in their both their ability to imagine themselves into someone else’s situation, as well as the level of ‘empathic concern’ they may experience as a result. For instance, the Irish singer songwriter Bob Geldof was so moved by the images in a BBC news report about the famine in Ethiopia (empathic concern) he was determined to do something about it. Other people may be empathic but use this to make things worse for people – e.g., a terrorist thinking about how to maximise the psychological impact of their acts. And it is important to recognise that empathy isn’t just about imagining how people might be responding to difficult or painful situations. We can also experience ‘empathic joy’ – for instance when we see someone else very happy or very pleased or having achieved something very important to them.

So, whether empathy is ‘good’, or not, depends on what a person does with it.

One area where empathy seems to be undoubtedly good is therapy and counseling, where the practitioners ability to imagine how their client may be feeling, and to communicate this attempt at understanding, may well explain why some practitioners get consistently better results than others - even when they use the same technical approach. Notice I said, ‘attempt to communicate this understanding’. If a therapist’s understanding of what it might be like for the client is not matched by the client feeling understood, then it may not benefit the client.

Which brings me to empathic listening. It has been said that most people ‘listen in order to respond’, rather than ‘listen to understand’. Accurate empathic listening involves the attitude or mindset of really listening to what the other person is saying and making efforts to demonstrate this attempt by saying something back to them. But do not just mirror their exact words, like a parrot. Offer different forms of empathic responding such as rephrasing or paraphrasing what they said, without any loss of meaning. And sometimes use a metaphor. S if someone says ‘you’re saying I should do one thing, and Mary says is should do the opposite’, then perhaps say ‘you feel pulled in different directions’ or ‘you’re not sure which direction to go in’. If they respond by saying ‘exactly’ or ‘definitely’ then you will have made an accurate empathic response. If you didn’t get it quite right, and they say ‘not really…. It’s more like this…’ then that is good too, as they heard your attempt to understand them, and want you get things right. This can also help the other person understand themselves better.

In summary, empathy is a human superpower - a very important human trait and ability, underpinning co-operation and compassion. Empathic concern involves being moved by someone else suffering, and empathic listening involves not just imagining yourself into someone else’s shoes, trying to see the world from their perspective, but also communicating your attempt at understanding so that the other persons feel listened to, heard, and understood.

And the good news is most people can get better at empathic listening and responding with training, which can impact their own lives, the lives of others, and the performance of their teams or organisation.

If you would like to explore this subject further, please drop us a line to:

Written by Dr Tim Anstiss

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