What is Empathy?

Empathy and sympathy are often confused or used interchangeably but there some important differences.

Empathy, for example, is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. To be truly empathic, you need to be able to ‘walk in another person’s shoes’ and to really experience their emotions.

Sympathy, on the other hand is understanding someone else’s suffering but ‘from a distance’ and can involve an element of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. When we feel sorry for someone, we are expressing sympathy – but we are not experiencing their emotions or walking beside them.

Empathy then, goes beyond feeling compassion for the emotional challenges of others and it can be seen as an active process of trying to really understand another person and enter into their frame of reference. It can be difficult to achieve though – many of us struggle to understand and ‘sit’ with our own feelings and emotions, so asking us to truly envision putting ourselves in another person’s place is even harder. For some people, though empathy feels like a natural response when they witness suffering. Those people are life’s natural counsellors – in a broad sense, as well as in the more specific realm of therapy.

Empathic people tend to share certain characteristics and these include the following:

  • They are good at listening – and do so actively and attentively.
  • They are often approached by others as a ‘shoulder to cry to’ or for advice and guidance.
  • They are intuitive in terms of how others are feeling.
  • They often feel overwhelmed by upsetting events and seem to ‘feel things’ very strongly.
  • They care deeply about others but can sometimes feel drained because of the emotional demands placed upon them.
  • Boundary setting can be challenging for empathic people because their need to help is so strong.

Interestingly, there are different types of empathy that people can experience and these include:

  • Affective empathy, which involves the ability to understand another person's emotions and respond appropriately.
  • Somatic empathy, which involves having a sort of physical reaction in response to what someone else is experiencing. People sometimes physically experience what another person is feeling. When you see someone else feeling embarrassed, for example, you might start to blush or have an upset stomach.
  • Cognitive empathy, which is concerned with the ability to understand another person’s mental state and what they might be thinking in response to certain situations.

Can empathy be developed?

Having the quality of empathy has been demonstrated to make people better managers and employees, as well as better family members and friends. So it stands to reason, that developing this skill would be useful in many different situations. In an article in The New York Times, ‘How to Be More Empathic’ by Claire Cain Miller, suggests that there are various evidence-based exercises that people can do to increase their levels of empathy. These exercises include the following:

  • Talk to new people to find out about their lives. Jodi Halpern, a psychiatrist and bioethics professor at the University of California comments that ‘the core of empathy is curiosity’. It’s important too, to minimise distractions when you are talking to others, so that you can really focus on listening and paying attention to them.
  • Try new experiences, so you are truly ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’. This could include travelling in a different culture, for example, or spending time following someone else’s routine.
  • Work on a communal project with others to engender a feeling of shared endeavour, fostering care and respect for each other, despite any differences.
  • Explore your own biases and prejudices, which starts with the sometimes challenging process of self-awareness and total honesty.
  • Exploring your privilege is also important. Your privileges are things that give you special status and that you didn’t earn and don’t necessarily realise you benefit from. One example is when someone raised with enough money has never thought about whether they can afford to eat or the fact that white people very rarely to worry about being stopped by police whereas for black people, this is much more frequent. One way of engaging with this is to take action against injustice – this helps people to understand the plight of others, even if they come from a place of privilege themselves.
  • Open your mind – to books, documentaries, travel, new ideas. How can you understand how others feel if you only ever have one frame of reference.

As Barack Obama said:

“Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world”