Empathy is more important than ever in human relations. Be it among employer and employee, husband and wife, or parents and children, empathy seems necessary to all circles of human interaction. Although fully covering this concept will require a long discussion, I’ll try to provide a general idea of what empathy is (and is not) and its significance in our daily lives.
Empathy can be described as “an ability to put one’s self into the mental shoes of another person to understand their emotions and feelings.” Other explanations of it range from experiencing emotions that match another person's emotions, to understanding what the other person is thinking or feeling (A comprehensive list of books and scholarly articles about empathy is available at www.empathy.se). Some definitions also delineate empathy as “an affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another's emotional state or condition, and that is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel” (wikipedia).
Taking it to a further level, Nursi talked about tafani (annihilation in one another), which even blurs the line between self and other. When mentioning true brotherhood, he defined the term as, “oblivious of their own merits and the pride which may arise from them, each person lives with the merits and feelings of their brothers and sisters in their mind.” 1
Conduits of empathy
Generally, the immediate reaction to the definitions above is, “Well, that sounds great; but how?” One should consider the background, education level, and many other parameters that characterize the “other” in order to reach an empathic state. Empathy begins with an awareness of another person's feelings and thoughts, which requires the cognitive ability to understand them, and the emotional capacity to actually feel them. Emotionally expressive people readily provide their inner state, as their eyes and faces are constantly letting us know how they are feeling. However, most people do not simply reveal how they feel, which leads us to ask questions, read between the lines, make guesses, or interpret non-verbal cues.2
Empathy is a lot more complex than just being able to look at things from another’s perspective. It is a skill that helps us to understand not only what that person would do in a given situation, but also why they would do so. The following case serves as an example:
I remember our teacher asking for two volunteers in one of her lectures. After I and Jim sat around the same table opposing each other, she requested us to close our eyes for five seconds. When we opened our eyes, there was a white box in the middle of the table. She asked: “Ok guys, are you ready?” We both nodded. “Ok, so here is the question: What color is the object on the table?” Well, was that it? The answer was so obvious, I couldn’t stop smiling. Jim answered first: “It’s black, Ma’am.” Very surprised with his answer, I responded promptly:
“What?! Are you kidding? It is clearly white... Don’t you see?”
“Nope. It is black, and I think you’d better be quite serious here.”
“Come on, Jim. I can’t believe that you’re saying this. Do you have a problem with your vision? It is white as snow!”
“No way! Do not insist. It is black.”
“OK guys, easy,” Mrs. Smith interrupted. “Would you please exchange seats now?”
We both started to laugh after we swapped our seats, as it turned out that one side of the box was painted in black and the other in white; we had been insisting without even considering this possibility. Both of us were exclusively right from our own viewpoints; but in fact, we were both correct. This lesson still serves as an exceptional reminder for me to listen, value, and try to understand other people’s opinions.
Hence, solely approaching the situation in a, “If I were him or her…” manner does not completely address the problem, unless one is aware of the other party’s mindset and background. Empathy is the ability to experience another person’s emotions, and expressing and responding to them in a heartfelt way.4 That’s why we empathize with the full range of the other person’s experience: sensations, emotions, thoughts, desires, joys, and sorrows; and beyond that, we empathize with the other person’s mind and self.
Due to these aspects, empathy emerges as a quality that joins us together, though it is not an agreement or approval. People can still empathize with someone that they wish would act very differently. For instance, even if an actor has the part of a character that he dislikes, he will act more genuinely to the extent that he can empathize; or a composer will express a theme by heart when she fully empathizes with the song writer…3
Empathy is usually linked to sorrow and conflict. This is why it is frequently confused with sympathy and pity. Sympathy is the feeling of compassion or concern for another; a wish to see them better off or happier. Pity is feeling that another is in trouble and in need of help, as they cannot fix their problems themselves; it is often described as "feeling sorry" for someone.2 Empathy, unlike sympathy and pity, can also apply to someone's positive feelings of success, accomplishment, pride, achievement, etc. A "high five," for example, shared between friends or between a parent and child, can be a sign of empathy in context of success.2
Empathy involves grasping feelings via nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions or vocal tone. It will provide an instant idea of the inner state of the other person. That is why sensitive people are more likely to notice someone else's feelings. But, even those who are not naturally sensitive can take steps to show more understanding by not belittling, diminishing, rejecting, judging, or ignoring others. Obviously, even just a simple acknowledgment, even without any real empathy, is much better than totally ignoring someone's feelings.2
Once how the other person feels is figured out, this awareness is expressed by acknowledging the emotion. Usually, this empathy is communicated in some way – for example, by saying, “I can see you are really uncomfortable about this; I know how it feels.” Or you can display a simple sign of affection, such as a hug or a tender touch, or through body language that mirrors the other person’s.2 In addition to conveying considerate messages, this acknowledgment will also yield to positive and constructive interactions among society, as most belief systems value empathy.
Empathy is more important than ever in a globalized world. If we make an effort to understand the emotions and motivations of other people, it will help us to bridge ethnic, national, and religious differences.
Innate and acquired empathy
While the ability to imagine oneself as another person is a sophisticated imaginative process, the basic capacity to recognize emotions is probably innate and may work unconsciously. Toddlers are able to comfort others or show concern for them as early as the age of two. They may pretend in an effort to fool others, which requires that the child knows what others believe before he or she can manipulate those beliefs.1 In general, adolescents show more empathy than toddlers while adults show more empathy than adolescents. In addition, women tend to be more empathic than men.4
Yet, apart from this innate tendency, one may also deliberately engage in empathic reasoning. The ability to empathize can be trained, and it can be achieved with various degrees of intensity or accuracy over time. For example, grasping the beliefs and desires of the other party is also essential to empathy, since emotions are more generally characterized by a combination of beliefs and desires.2 Therefore, whether using innate tendencies or deliberate engagement in empathic reasoning, a person may simulate the beliefs, desires, character traits, and context of the other and see what emotional feelings this leads to. Or, a person may imitate the emotional feeling and then look around for a suitable reason for this to fit.2
Whether innate or acquired, empathy has some other side benefits as well. Those who are more empathic tend to be happier, whereas people who remain preoccupied with themselves tend to be unhappy.3 Studies show that students who participated in programs that teach them to be more empathic improved on a number of levels. They tended to do better academically, scored better on tests of higher-order reading comprehension, displayed enhanced creative thinking and critical thinking, showed an increase in pro-social behavior (sharing, cooperation, trust, kindness), and experienced a decrease in bullying and aggression.
The expression of empathy gives the other person the feeling of being felt; this an essential feeling, from infancy onward. The expression of empathy conveys the vital signal in any communication: “Message received.” This alone can often calm the other person, and help them feel better. And even if there is an upsetting topic on the table, you can still get on with the business at hand with a clearer head.3
When we feel empathy for someone, we are getting emotional information about them and their circumstances. As you get to know others on an emotional level, you are more likely to see similarities between your feelings and basic emotional needs and their needs. You learn to identify with them, to relate to them, and to empathize with them. This higher level of empathy will yield higher degrees of understanding, which then lead to higher levels of compassion.2
Johnny was diagnosed with cancer when he was only 17 years old. He became very angry and refused to talk to anyone. In his mind, this simply wasn’t fair.
When family members tried to console him by talking about his problems, he rejected them. Often he yelled at them. Even with the doctor he had no patience. He stayed in his bedroom for days at a time.
After a few weeks, the minister came by to talk with him. Johnny rejected him too. He barked at the minister, “You don’t know what it’s like.” But the minister responded quietly, “Well actually I do; I have cancer myself.”
At this point, Johnny began to cry. It was as if an emotional barrier had burst into pieces. He spent the next couple hours talking with the minister and found himself accepting his illness. He began feeling better than he had since he was first diagnosed. He had been touched by the minister's empathy, and had found his own.4
Reading about a feeling or intellectually knowing about it is very different than actually experiencing it. If, for example, you have never put your hand in a flame, you will not truly know the pain of fire. Therefore a person, who has experienced a variety of feelings may better empathize with many people from diverse walks of life. When someone "can't relate" to other people, it is possibly because they haven't experienced such feelings on their own. Once you have felt discriminated against, for example, it is much easier to relate with someone else who has been discriminated against.2
People are more able and willing to empathize with those most similar to themselves, particularly in terms of culture and living conditions. Levenson and Reuf (1997) and Hoffman (2000) suggest that empathy is more likely to occur between individuals whose interactions are more frequent.2 Empathy increases with similarities, and, at this point, it is important to note that, all of us share similar emotional needs such as being acknowledged, loved, respected, feeling safe and supported, being treated fairly – and being trusted, understood, and valued. The wide variations among our needs are mostly differences in degree, rather than in type. For example, we all need to feel some degree of freedom, but one person may need more freedom than another.
Understanding vs. evil suspicion
Empathy does not imply one has an ill-opinion of the other:
Two blind friends were enjoying their lunch from the same plate, which had meatballs on it. One asked the other:
“Hey, don’t rush! Why do you take two meatballs at a time?”
“You are blind, too! How did you know I do that?”
“I know from myself.”
Some psychologists argue that people may serve as mirrors to one another in this sense. Since they assess the world through their own filtering lenses, whoever has evil suspicions may merely be reflecting his or her own inner state onto the other person:
A farmer had lost his shovel. He believed that it was the son of his neighbor next door who stole it and began to scrutinize his every step. He observed the boy walking as a thief, noticed a tone in his speech that “revealed” he was a robber, and thought his face clearly confessed his guilt. Every posture and attribute of the kid was “proving” he’d committed the crime.
Yet, the following day, the farmer found his shovel in his barn where he had carefully left it weeks before. When he looked at the boy that day, surprisingly, he no longer looked like a robber; and there was no sign of theft in his face, nor in his words.
Evil suspicion is obviously injurious to the social relationships in a community, and is thus explicitly disallowed by various teachings:
“O you who believe! Avoid much suspicion, for some suspicion is a grave sin; and do not spy (on one another), nor backbite (against one another)… Keep from disobedience to God in reverence for him and piety.” (Qur’an 49:12)
Along the same lines, in 1993, 143 leaders from different faith traditions and spiritual communities proclaimed, “do not treat people in a way you would not wish to be treated yourself,” as a common principle for many religions.5
Think, before you judge
“A person who sees the good in things will have good thoughts; and one who has good thoughts will receive pleasure from life,” Nursi stated. Empathy is not a process that is likely to deliver certain judgments about the emotional states of others. It is a skill that is gradually developed throughout life, and which improves as we have more contact with the person with whom we empathize. Accordingly, any knowledge gained or sensed from the other must be revisable in light of newer information.2 The following story encourages us not to rush into immediate judgments:
A woman was waiting at an airport one night with several long hours before her flight. She hunted for a book in the airport shop, bought a bag of cookies, and found a place to sit. She was engrossed in her book but happened to see that the man beside her, as bold as could be, grabbed a cookie or two from the bag between them. She tried to ignore this, to avoid causing a scene. She munched cookies and watched the clock as this gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by, thinking, "If I wasn't so nice, I'd blacken his eye." With each cookie she took, he took one, too. And when only one was left, she wondered what he'd do. With a smile on his face and a nervous laugh, he took the last cookie and broke it in half.
He offered her half as he ate the other. She snatched it from him and thought, "I can’t believe this! This guy has some nerve – and he's also rude! Why didn't he even show any gratitude?"
She couldn’t remember the last time she was so galled and sighed with relief when her flight was called. She gathered her belongings and headed for the gate, refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate. She boarded the plane and sank in her seat. Then she sought her book, which was almost complete. As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise: there was her bag of cookies. "If mine are here," she moaned with despair, "then the others were his and he tried to share."
Too late to apologize, she realized with grief, “that she was the rude one, the ungrateful, the thief.”
At times, people can be overconfident, which limits objective recognition. This confidence can be so great that they do not even consider the possibility they might be at fault. Imagine explaining the story from the angle of the man whose cookies were eaten. Had he not possessed some empathy, the situation could have been a lot different. Although many people are inclined to blame others for the problems they complain about, they may well have their own share in the problems; one should question their own errors before going after anyone else’s. The later the reality is realized, the more likely we are to miss the chance for potential healing.
To wrap up, empathy helps us connect with one another at a deep level. It is an essential skill to understand the needs and expectations of our friends and neighbors – and even our enemies. It helps us to become more social.4 Furthermore, empathy is crucial for diverse social environments in all its forms – in character and values as well as in ethnicity, religion, class, and so on.3 For instance, the management of a diverse business/education/community setting can address the needs of the people involved better by employing an empathic approach. Or, an interfaith dialogue effort will be more fruitful when parties utilize empathy in their interactions, rather than solely gathering theoretical knowledge about other faith traditions and their members.
Empathy in the sense of mutual understanding, as suggested by various teachings, is a key social remedy. It is an important trait that is worth cultivating. It is at the root of kindness, compassion, understanding, and respect – qualities that we all appreciate being shown, whoever we are, whatever we think, and wherever we come from. Despite all of us having our unique life experiences, and although it is impossible to be another person, imagining what would cause other to suffer or be happy should not be difficult. Wouldn’t you agree?
1 Nursi, Said. The Gleams (The Twenty-first Gleam), NJ: The Light, Inc. p. 229.
5 Some examples to this principle in different faith traditions are listed at http://www.unification.net/ws/theme015.htm