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  • Writer's pictureReflective Resources

E is for Empathy

What is empathy?

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” Alfred Adler

Empathy is the ability to identify and understand other people's feelings through imagination.

“When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.” Susan Sarandon

Having empathy is essentially about having the ability to see things from another's perspective and then responding to concerns and needs accordingly.

“Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” Brené Brown

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Empathy is different to sympathy, which might be considered as feeling for someone. Empathy is more concerned about feeling with a person.

“Empathetic presence involves listening to someone’s pain with what I call the five A’s: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing.” David Richo

Can you develop empathetic skills?

"Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually."

Tim Minchin

We are innately social beings and everyone has the capacity to develop empathy. Empathy is a skill, and like any skill, it can be cultivated through intentional effort. The capacity for empathy varies from one person to the next and can be influenced by one’s perception of social integration.

“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy, we can all sense a mysterious connection to each other.” Meryl Streep

When we don’t have empathy with each other, our relationships suffer. When we lack intimacy and close connection; relationships remain shallow emotionally, and become mostly based upon mutual interests or shared activities with little knowledge or understanding about what those alongside us are thinking or feeling.

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own. ” Henry Ford

Daniel Goleman identified five key elements of empathy:

Understanding Others This is about “sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns” (Daniel Goleman). To understand others properly we need to pay attention, listen actively, enter into another’s perspective and look out for non-verbal* cues as well.

Developing Others We can help others develop by acting on the needs and concerns of others, helping them to flourish through encouragement, praise and practical support

Having a Service Orientation This is primarily concerned with a work scenario; putting the needs of customers first and looking for ways to improve their satisfaction and loyalty, but it can equally be applied to any relationship though i.e. when we seek to genuinely understand and help the other person and are prepared to ‘go the extra mile’ to do so.

Leveraging Diversity Leveraging diversity means being able to create and develop opportunities through different kinds of people, by recognising and celebrating that we all bring something different to the table.

Political Awareness Political awareness can help individuals to navigate organisational relationships effectively, allowing them to achieve where others may previously have failed by sensing and responding the emotional undercurrents of a group and the power relationships/hierarchy within it.

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman have identified three components of empathy: Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate.

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Cognitive empathy is the ability to step back and understand someone’s mental state and responses to a situation. It is about seeking to understand someone’s thoughts and emotions, in a rational, rather than emotional sense (even if you don’t agree with them). Asking questions and not making assumptions is key to understanding the intention behind other’s responses. Psychologists refer to this as theory of mind, or thinking about what other people are thinking.

“There are two important reasons why your brain is primed to experience the pain of others: to teach you what to avoid and to motivate you to help the injured person, whether their pain is physical, psychological, emotional, or some degree of all of these,” Helen Riess

Emotional or somatic empathy is about the ability to feel what another person is feeling. It can involve having a physical reaction in response to what the other person is experiencing. e.g. When you see someone else feeling embarrassed you might start to blush too or have another physical reaction of discomfort

Compassionate or affective empathy is about the ability to understand someone’s feelings, and then be able to respond appropriately. Such emotional understanding may lead to feeling concern for another person's well-being but can also lead to feelings of personal distress.

Barriers to empathy

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection or compassionate action.” Daniel Goleman

When we see another person in pain, for many, responding with indifference or hostility seems incomprehensible, but the sad fact is that some individuals, newspapers and those that lead certain countries have created new ‘norms’ of responses to e.g. those who are different and their responses clearly demonstrate that empathy is not necessarily a universal response to the suffering of others.

The job of leaders should be to unify a country/group of countries and work across the spectrum of differences, leveraging diversity and reinforcing commonality, but self-serving leadership often condones mistreatment of others and this is aided by technology to cover facts and reality, reducing important debates to mere sound bites that hold little substance, truth or meaning.

The negative actions of such leaders move a country towards a sense of dehumanisation with people becoming convinced that others who are different from them don't have the same feelings and hopes and desires as they do particularly when people live on the other side of the world or look different. News reports of conflict in a foreign land or a disaster produce less empathetic responses if it is thought that those who are suffering are fundamentally different from ourselves.

The ability to feel empathy allows people to 'walk a mile in another's shoes'.

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” Barack Obama

When empathy is used in a situation, it allows us to build connections with each other.

“I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the steelworker who's been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”

Barrack Obama

What encourages empathy?

“The highest form of knowledge is empathy.” Bill Bullard

Empathy is best built upon mutual understanding. So as well as learning about other people’s experiences and seeing the world through another’s eyes, it’s also important that you open up about your own feelings and experiences so you engage equally with the other person.

“I dare you to take off the mask of perfection and show up as you are. Feel the freedom, the release, the lightness. Because when we are real that is when we actually heal. And those around us just might heal too” Ashley Hetherington

When we always invest in being our authentic selves, it encourages others to have the freedom to do likewise. We cannot have authentic connections if we seek to hide aspects of ourselves in order to create an illusion of perfection.

“This is our big chance to see what people think of us. The real us. We have to show them there's nothing to be afraid of. If we don't get over our fears, they never will.” Lisi Harrison

How can you improve your empathy skills?

“If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” Turkish Proverb

Non-verbal communication is an essential part of communication. Using neuroscience-based research, Helen Riess teaches E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. , using the acronym as a tool to enhance non-verbal* communication between clinicians and their patients

Eye contact,

Muscles of facial expression,



Tone of voice,

Hearing the whole person, and

Your response.

Empathy is practised when we pay attention and make eye-contact with someone, seeking to listen and understand rather than to speak.

“Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear; all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her suffering can be a big comfort.” Roy T. Bennett

Our ability to be empathetic increases by keeping a Growth Mindset and practising Lifelong learning – and increasing our knowledge about people from different backgrounds and cultures, removing our assumptions; seeking to understand not judge

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Mother Teresa

Showing empathy requires intentional effort and can be challenging, but can bring many benefits.

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?” Henry David Thoreau

With increased practice practising empathy can also help you to learn how to regulate your own emotions. Emotional regulation is important in that it allows you to manage what you are feeling, whether it is in times of great stress (reducing your chances of becoming overwhelmed) or when responding to someone whose values are poles apart to your own. It helps you to put aside your personal thoughts and allows you to get inside someone else’s head to understand why they would be thinking and feeling as they do because of their beliefs. Emotional regulation leads to self-empathy which then increases our ability and resources to care about others more efficiently and has the added bonus of making us feel better too!

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

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