This Tricky Tricky Tricky Empathy

Empathy. What the heck is empathy?

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When I pronounce words and don’t know their exact meaning ( and most abstract words are very puzzling) — I start searching. Because for me, as well as for Freud, words have magical power and I can’t spare them or misuse them. So what is EMPATHY? The definition of empathy won’t tell you a lot frankly speaking. Simply put, it’s the ability to understand, share the emotions of another human being and react to them accordingly. The literal translation of this word from Greek is really insightful — “in feeling.”

It means being in the feeling. Not reading about the feeling. Not thinking about the feeling. Tasting it like a new food for the first time, let’s say a Lebanese dish, the ingredients of which you can’t guess by their look. Empathy seems to be the opposite to explicit communication. Because we experience empathy when we don’t have direct cues and don’t hear words describing feelings. Is empathy close to guessing? I don’t know, to me, it’s mostly like guessing. Or not?

So far it’s clear that empathy seems tricky in many many ways.

TRICK #1. IN THE FEELING

It’s really difficult to be “in the feeling.” Admit it, emotional inclusion is challenging and even a bit scary. It’s easier to get distracted by thoughts or memories. It’s easier to speak than to feel very often.

Nevertheless, being emphatic is essential for people who raise children for example. How else can you understand a human being who is not expressing verbally yet? Actually, empathy most likely was formed as the result of the infant-mother relationship.

Empathic professionals, those who can be present inside the dialogue 100% of time emotionally, also win. No doubt. Patients treated by more empathic doctors are 19% more likely to follow their recommendations.
Empathetic sales managers hook customers more easily by tailoring each proposition to clients’ needs.

TRICK #2 SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES

“Walking in someone’s shoes” — that’s the metaphor you will come by most often reading about empathy. It’s vague and puzzling. Yet. It has some sense in it. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person you want to know better. The shoes this person is wearing for work for example. And imagine walking in them for a day. Ask yourself

  • What does this person see on his way to the office?
  • How long does this person wait in a queue in the supermarket?
  • What painful memories bother this person when he is taking the boots after a long and lonely walk in the park?
  • What fears does he/she withhold?
  • What thoughts does he/she have when he wakes up in the morning and slips into house shoes?

Walking in someone’s shoes means perceiving the world from the perspective of the person you want to empathize with. How to increase empathy using this bright metaphor? One way is to you use your imaginations + observations.

Mindful meditation is another way to solve the riddle of empathy. Taking a deep breath before walking into a room where another person is waiting. Trying to feel the doorknob opening the door. Listening to what a person says and how he/she says it as well as listening to the world around. Easy said than done!

TRICK#3 AVATARS

Today the Silicon Valley is selling us empathy in one set with VR claiming the last to be “an empathy machine.”Why? Because it promises embodiment into virtual avatars.

It seems that the modern IT world requires your empathy as much as your knowledge of coding languages. Are you not empathetic enough? Go get another job, please. The problems are that the definition of empathy is vague. And if I can imagine myself walking in the shoes of my mother easily, with my 3-year old niece it can be really difficult. With an old Chinese man who lived all his life in the mountains, it’s even more difficult. A bit more complicated than that.

Yet VR promises us full immersion into avatars and as a result- a higher level of empathy. VR will give you the chance to walk in the shoes of people you would never be able to walk- a teenage refugee girl or an old lady living in a remote Romanian village.

Stanford Virtual Lab is even trying to solve real problem of stereotypes with the help of VR. For example, they give you the chance to embody the avatar of your older self to make you start saving money for the old age at last ( and it works).

Imagine the effect from the embodiment of animals?

TRICK#4 NEUROSCIENCE OF EMPATHY

Biologically speaking, we don’t just see what’s happening to others we “experience” it ourselves before we even realize it in a sense.

When you are with someone, you read this person’s facial expressions automatically, your brain interprets them instantly.

You see the person with the eyes wide open and the upper eyelids a bit raised, the eyebrows are also a bit raised and pulled together. Maybe the mouth is opened and stretched horizontally — and here it is, your brain detects FEAR. How does it happen? You simply feel fear. For several seconds your brain doesn’t distinguish between your emotions and the emotions of another human being. That is how we all shape as people: first, we don’t feel separated from the world, and especially from our mothers and we have common feelings. It’s at the age of 2 or 3 we learn to differentiate between our emotions and the emotions of people we communicate to. So only after several seconds your brain tells you “Wait! It’s another person who feels it, not you!” And then is the moment we realize the emotional state of another human being and can even act accordingly.

TRICK #5 TRAINING EMPATHY?

The meaning of empathy is enormous for human development. Yet the questions is: can we train it? Some authors say that we all are empathetic by default ( excluding antisocial personalities). Others suggest that empathy can be trained like any other skill, such as logical thinking for example. The truth is empathy is innate yet training it as a skill will help a lot.

  • Listening. It could not be more obvious.
  • Being present for 100% not being distracted by gadgets or personal issues.
  • Practicing with people who have opposite views!
  • Encouraging people and being sincere.
  • Calling people by their names ( another obvious one).

TRICK #6 EMOTIONAL RESONANCE

Empathy is not about perceiving. It’s also about reacting. Sounds easy because, but in any case, this is another trick again.

Paul Ekman (one of the top world experts on emotions) says that emotion recognition is natural, and it’s easy. When we see a person in pain we feel pain too even if it’s a paper cut. The only exception on this are the people who work with pain constantly, such as paramedics or people working in the orphanage. Feeling constant pain means burning out.
Emotional resonance is a real trick. Because feeling pain doesn’t mean reacting properly to it.

It doesn’t mean saying “I see you are in pain, what can I do for you?” And that is probably where the true empathy begins.

Empathy is elusive, is not about words, it’s more about this minor facial expressions, gestures, the tone of voice. It’s always about another level of perception. And I don’t want to speak about the third eye here. I want to speak about the information we don’t perceive consciously. Empathy is all about minor clues which are most likely you learn to interpret better with experience in life. But what is more, empathy is about reacting — not perceiving.