Empathy: It’s not just for hippies anymore

I recently wrote an essay about how we need to respect Trump supporters even if we don’t respect their beliefs. My essential point was that we’re actually not that different from each other regardless of how strongly we may hold our views so we need to approach with empathy those who believe differently than us.

Many of the folks who disagreed seemed to think that when we empathize with someone we are implicitly approving of their beliefs/decisions.

This is a very common fallacy that gets in the way of compromise in general, be it at the personal or societal level. It results in the hardening of attitudes into the “I am right so you are wrong” simplification that seems to be the inevitable end result of disagreement between two people or two groups.

Husband or wife, liberal or conservative, Trump or Clinton, we all get to that point of wanting to shake some sense into someone.

So, empathy? Sounds suspiciously idealistic, or worse, unrealistic.

The reason is that the term “empathy” is commonly used in the sense of harmony and charity and puppies and kittens and rainbows.

However we also know that some opinions are stupid. Some choices are just plain wrong. But people are still choosing them. So why should we empathize with them?

Given the erroneous usage of the term as described above, we shouldn’t.

Sympathy is not Empathy

The thing is, what we normally think of as empathy is actually sympathy: a feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

And unlike empathy, sympathy does have an implied aspect of approval for the other person’s situation. Having sympathy for someone means you’re excusing them for their bad decision which is essentially tacit approval of that decision.

But actual empathy is about the person, not the decision. It is not about judgement, it’s not about disapproval or approval. It is not the kind of hand-wringing moral relativism that you get with sympathy.

Instead it is a cold-eyed, sober, and (ideally) unemotional ability to understand another person. It is casting yourself into the situation of that person, taking yourself out of your own thoughts and feelings.

To use an extreme example, a psychopath is not very sympathetic but he has to be empathic or he won’t be able to manipulate people.

This may seem like verbal gymnastics but the distinction between these two related ideas is crucial for getting on in the world and getting along with other people, be they in your family, socio-political unit, or planet.

In order to be effective, that is in order to achieve the results we desire, we need to understand the real situation we are dealing with. And people being the biggest component of any human situation, understanding them is crucial.

Think of empathy in the context of that quote from Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”: “Know yourself and know your enemy and you will be successful in 100 battles”. Empathy is about knowing the other person (your “enemy” only in the narrow sense that they disagree with you). It is a dispassionate disinterested appraisal of another human being’s situation.

Engaging with people without understanding humans is like trying to do multiplication without understanding numbers. Again “understand” in this context is not “I agree with your argument”, it is merely “I recognize how your internal context is driving you to your decision”.

Empathy is not the same as approval.

Self-awareness is the key to empathy

So how do we become more empathic?

Paradoxically, it is about focusing on yourself, cultivating self-awareness so that we aren’t kidding ourselves about our true motivations, be they venial or honorable. Only when we can be accurate about how we function can we predict how other people function.

Everyone operates with the default conceit that they know how they will act when put in the same circumstances as another person. But that imagined hero, who will always act with nobility, is not the real us.

We avoid getting to know our real selves because we equate bad thoughts or motivations with being bad people. Humans are not that simple. People do bad things for good reasons. People do good things for bad reasons.

Self-awareness is not a comfortable or easy thing to achieve because being self-aware means that you recognize both the bad and the good in yourself.

The former is uncomfortable because we don’t like to admit how we are less than perfect and the latter is uncomfortable because it challenges us to live up to our potential. Self-awareness very rarely feels good in and of itself but it allows us to live our life in an effective way which leads to long term happiness.

This means we must develop the courage to face ourselves, always asking “why” when we do something, especially something that seems self destructive. (We learn more when we fail than when we succeed. Especially when we fail and we know we really should have succeeded).

Building a habit of questioning yourself dispassionately is the start of being able to do so when dealing with others.

By understanding why we ourselves act the way we do, why we really and truly act the way we do, genuinely examining our true motives and especially the way our feelings interact with our rationality to drive our decisions, we can understand how other people can similarly be driven.

Your recognition of your flaws makes you more aware of how another person’s flaws drives them to poor decisions. Your recognition of your strengths makes you more aware of how another person’s poor decisions do not fully define them.

Self-centeredness is not self-awareness

The biggest obstacle to self-awareness and thus empathy is self-centeredness.

First off, being self-centered is completely different from being selfish. Being selfish means that you are only concerned about your advantage and getting what you want, regardless of what that may imply for other people. The opposite of being selfish is being generous.

Self-centeredness, on the other hand, refers to a particular aspect of how people relate to reality. Specifically one in which they assume that their internal reality is automatically an accurate and comprehensive view of the world. The opposite of being self-centered is being perceptive, alert.

If you are selfish but not self-centered then you manipulate people for your own gain regardless of how it may impact them. If you are self-centered but not selfish then you do what you think is best for other people without actually checking if that is what they need or want.

Self-centeredness often arises from some pain we’ve suffered at the hands of another person. We interpret the world in such a way that it doesn’t touch those sensitive areas within ourselves. It is all about holding to a static rather than accurate narrative about how the world works.

The problem with being self-centered is that your model of reality exists solely in your own head. A self-centered person makes bad assumptions about the way the world works because they don’t pay attention to what is actually happening and so do not adjust their perception of it in their heads.

Anything that conflicts with that imagined “reality” is ignored or defined away. If you attempt to use a rational, reasonable argument to prove wrong someone who is self-centered it is ignored because “you just don’t understand”, only they really “get it”.

Because someone who is self-centered does not take in any external information that contradicts their model of reality, they never check to see if the way they are actually behaving matches the way they assume they behave.

This means when they imagine themselves in another person’s situation, it is an inaccurate model of their own behavior that is being used as a reference. They come to the wrong conclusion of how the other person should react because they are wrong about how they themselves will react.

Self-awareness is empathy

In the end, we are fundamentally more similar than we are different. We can use ourselves as a model for other people but only if we accurately and continuously tune that model by putting our motivations under the microscope.

So it really boils down to two points

  1. Empathy is about understanding where people are coming from not approving where they are going
  2. Understanding other people starts with the difficult work of understanding yourself

It doesn’t matter if you like or respect another person: you will fail if you don’t understand yourself and don’t understand them.