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How to Be Empathetic

Find out what you can do to improve your relationships.

“You never have the patience just to sit and listen.” “All you ever want to do is try to fix things.” “You just don’t understand how much it hurt when you said that.” "You just don't get it.” Judgments like these and countless others verbalized or thought in the context of interpersonal relationships often point to one popular problem: the lack of empathy for the other. This post will clarify the nature of empathy, and why it is so important, and gives you nine practical guidelines for addressing this block to successful interpersonal relationships.

Empathy is a condition of functional interpersonal relationships. In personal contexts, including marriages, partnerships, friendships, and parental relationships, as well as in professional contexts such as managerial, professional-client, student-teacher, and peer relationships, being empathetic to the situations of others can promote trust, leading to open and honest communication, thereby facilitating resolution of interpersonal conflicts and constructive change. Indeed, the recent work on emotional intelligence undertaken by Daniel Goleman suggests that emotional intelligence, one’s emotional quotient (EQ), which includes empathy as a central component, may sometimes be more important than one’s intelligence quotient (IQ). The early research conducted by Carl Rogers on the importance of empathy in building trust in psychotherapeutic as well as other interpersonal relationships, has even set the stage for development of self-report inventories designed to measure one’s empathy quotient (EQ).

However, there is considerable disagreeable about what exactly is being measured and what you can do to improve your empathetic prowess. There are some researchers who view empathy as an emotional response to another person’s emotional state; whereas cognitive accounts proceed primarily or exclusively in terms of understanding another person’s state of mind. These extremes, however, fail to capture the idea that empathy involves both affective and cognitive components. In this post, I will provide such a mixed account with the primary goal of telling you how you can be empathetic. So what is empathy?

The Virtue of Being Empathetic

First, it is important to distinguish between empathy as a state of mind and empathy as a character trait or disposition. The first is related to the second inasmuch as those who are empathetic as one of their character traits will tend to experience states of empathy in their relating to the plights of others.

As a state of mind, empathy involves resonating with what is going on in the subjective world of another. Let’s call the person with whom you empathize, the target of your empathy. Now, when you empathize with someone, not only do we know what the target is going through, you also feel it, although, as Rogers would say, “without losing the “as if” quality, that is, without losing your objectivity as an observer. So, a friend of yours just lost her mother; and, while you may not have lost a parent, you can still empathize; for you can know what it might be like to lose a parent—you can imagine the harsh reality of not ever being able to see, confide in, or experience the love and support of someone who has played such a major role in your life. So you can imagine what it might be like to lose your own parent even if you have never had the actual experience. This is what it means “to put yourself in the shoes of the other person.” And so doing can also lead you to emotionally appreciate the loss as if it had occurred to you—again, without losing this “as if” quality. The emotional response here will include the somatic sensations that might normally accompany the loss of a beloved, such as a hollow pit in your stomach, lump in your throat, and teary-eyes. You will then also have certain behavioral tendencies associated with such sadness, such as the tendency to want to do something to fix the situation, along with the blunt realization that nothing can ever be done to change the brute fact of the beloved’s death.

Yet some people do not seem to resonate very well with the experiences of others. While they may understand their circumstances, they may not have the requisite emotional response. Still other people may lack the understanding of what a person may be going through as well. Indeed, some of us may be said to be more empathetic than others, which means that some are prone to empathize more often than others.

Notice that in saying that some people are more empathetic, I do not mean that some people have higher quality experiences of empathy than others. As a personality trait, empathy is more like being pregnant than it is like being overweight. People are not more or less pregnant. They are pregnant or not. In contrast, people can be more or less overweight. Being empathetic does not admit of degrees. Either you are being empathetic or not. To the extent that you lack any of the requisite cognitive, emotional or behavioral components of empathy, you lack empathy. Thus the person who feels emotionally distraught over someone else’s bad news does not empathize if he or she really doesn’t understand or appreciate what the bad news really is; and conversely, the person who knows and appreciates what has happened but just doesn’t feel it, also lacks empathy. So the question of how to be more empathetic turns on the question about how to more often attain the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional synergy that is involved in empathy.

Notice too that empathy is not merely a laundry list of independent cognitive, behavioral, and emotional variables; it is a balance of such factors such that one is thinking, feeling, and behaviorally inclined in ways that are mutually supportive. Thus, there is interplay between these factors. Thus, the thought of your friend in such emotional pain, prompts your own painful sensations, and these feelings, in turn, inform and transform your thoughts, particularly your rating or evaluation of what happened (“How can this be! Such a good person should have to suffer like this!”)

Moreover, people who may properly be said to be empathetic are people who tend to be empathetic. That is, empathizing on occasion no more makes someone an empathetic person than does telling the truth on occasion make someone truthful. For, an empathetic person, like the truthful person, is in a habit of being empathetic. That is, when others are suffering, they tend to experience empathy for their plights. This does not mean that empathetic people must always feel empathy in such cases any more than truthful people must always tell the truth. However, when lack of empathic regard becomes more the rule than the exception, then it is clear that the person in question is not habitually disposed toward empathy.

Further, the analogy with being truthful is also revealing in another way. Empathy, like truthfulness, may appropriately be considered a moral virtue. According to Aristotle, moral virtues involve the balance of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional factors. The morally virtuous person is one who exercises rational constraint in the indulgences of appetites and actions. Likewise, an empathetic person applies her knowledge of the plights of others to inform her emotional responses to these situations, and acts in line with such enlightened emotions. For example, knowing how someone came to be homeless—the loss of a job, getting evicted from his apartment as a result of not being able to pay the rent, not having an address affecting his ability to find another job, etc.—can inform the sadness one experiences for the plight of the homeless person and can help motivate one to do something about it.

Now, Aristotle maintained that one attains virtue through practice. Thus people learn to be truthful, courageous, and just by telling the truth, doing courageous things, and treating others justly. Similarly, being empathetic takes practice. In order to become empathetic (that is, cultivate the virtue of empathy), you need to work at it by being empathetic.

So the question is this: How can you attain the virtue of empathy? In what follows I will venture an answer to this question, in the form of nine practical guidelines, gleaned from my life’s journey, personally, academically, and clinically:

How to Be Empathetic: Nine Guidelines

1. Focus your attention on the welfare, interests, and needs of others

As said, there is a cognitive component to empathizing with another. That is, there is certain knowledge you must have to empathize with the other person. First, one does not simply empathize with another person; rather one empathizes with another about something. That which empathy is about may appropriately be called the subject of empathy. Now, the subject of empathy is always some event or state of affairs that is contrary to the welfare, interests, or needs of the target. By “welfare,” I mean the promotion of happiness (pleasure and the absence of pain and suffering). By “interests,” I mean seriously held desires, goals, and life plans, and rights. By “needs” I mean such things as food, clothing, and shelter. (nonphysical “needs” such as love, intimacy, freedom, autonomy, friendship, and belonging, I include under interests.). Any fact that affects or bears on the welfare, interests, and needs of others also counts as pertinent knowledge for the purposes of empathizing.

Thus, if you know that another has lost a loved one, this fact counts as pertinent knowledge; but also, if you know that the beloved was killed by a drunk driver, then that fact is also relevant. Why? It’s because this fact explain the loss. Indeed, the fact that this individual was struck down by such a random, needless, unanticipated act helps to illuminate just how traumatic the event must be for the target. So, the subject of empathy always consists of facts (or fact claims) about some event or state of affairs adverse to the welfare, interests, or needs of the target, including any facts (or fact claims) relevant to this adversity.

2. Key into shared human values

Such ability to key into the welfare, interests, and needs of others also requires the ability to take another’s value perspective. For example, most of us can appreciate the hardship of losing a beloved family member. But what if the beloved family member is a pet, say a goldfish? Here, even if you, yourself, would not lament the death of a goldfish, you may still know what it feels like to lose someone whom you love, and so your powers of empathy may still extend to the target’s loss. In a general sense, the subject of empathy in this case is about loss of a loved one, which is a shared human value. Similarly, one need not be gay to empathize with a gay person about a partner’s sexual infidelity. Empathy thus involves the ability to key into shared human values across diverse interpersonal contexts and cultures.

This value dimension of empathizing is integral to the emotional component of empathy. In merely understanding the facts pertaining to the subject of empathy, one is not engaging in the subjective world of the target. One cannot feel what he is going through. To be empathetic, you must also “feel bad” about the target’s plight. Here you are not simply entertaining facts; you are also rating or evaluating them. You are assessing the badness of what the target is going through—the suffering, the anguish of not being accepted by one’s peers; the loss of a dear one; the painful realization that the love of one’s life has been unfaithful; the fear of losing one’s livelihood; the frustration of repeatedly having bad luck; and so on. To get to this place, you will need to identify with the misfortune in terms of the shared human values that are at stake. Here is where you put yourself in the shoes of the target and imagine how you too would feel if you were confronting the identical situation. From this phenomenological position, you are still not the other person but you nonetheless are (psychologically) there, confronting the same adversity. From this perspective, you can then appreciate what the target is going through, because you now share in the misfortune. Its badness is now evident to you from this shared, interpersonal, phenomenological perspective.

3. Suspend, temporarily, your own considered judgments and critiques

Pronouncements and clichés about getting over it and moving on will not bring you into proximity with the subjective world of the target. You will not feel the pain or distress; or the tension in your own muscles. To do this you must dispense with your own analyses and criticisms; and you must not focus on how to fix things. In this regard, empathy is anti-pragmatic. If you approach the target with an eye toward fixing what is wrong, then you will not share in the experience of what is (or appears to be) wrong. You will miss the opportunity to empathize. Moreover, people who are suffering may not even want their confidents to help fix anything—at least not just yet. They may simply want someone to know what they are going through. Fixing the problem can come later after empathy has helped to establish rapport and trust.

This does not mean that you must agree with or accept the perspective of the target or her value assessments; nevertheless, in the process of empathizing, you must dispense with your own ratings, analyses, evaluations, and critiques in order to gain subjective access to the subjective world of the target. Of course, this may be very difficult if the target’s subjective world is perverse or evil. This is why most of us lack empathy for child molesters and mass murderers.

4. Connect with the target

Suspending your own value judgments, while putting yourself in the subjective shoes of the target, is essential to empathizing. This mental approach is what feminist psychologist Blythe Clinche calls “connected knowing.” Clinche states,

The heart of connected knowing is imaginative attachment: trying to get behind the other person's eyes and "look at it from that person's point of view." ...You must suspend your disbelief, put your own views aside, try to see the logic in the idea. You need not ultimately agree with it. But while you are entertaining it you must..."say yes to it." You must empathize with it, feel with and think with the person who created it.

To gain such knowledge you must therefore bust your gut to see the truth in what the target is saying. “I can see how hard it has been for you to get over your ex; how much you still love her; I can appreciate how much you want to be back together and how the thought of her being with someone else is so hurtful.” Here you are resonating with the values of the target. These values—unrequited love, jealousy, forlornness, and sense of disempowerment-- are shared human values. As such, you can “connect,” at a human level,” with the target by sharing in these values.

This contrasts what Clinche calls “separate knowing,” which approaches the target with doubt and incredulity in order to disprove what he is saying. “I don’t see how you can still love her after what she has done to you. What you need now is to get a good lawyer so that she doesn’t take you to the cleaners.” In taking the latter approach, you will not empathize; you will not get inside the subjective world of the target; you will instead analyze, critique, and dissect it from the outside. You will also probably alienate the other, who will, in turn, not want to disclose private, personal, and intimate details of his subjective life. However, in taking the former approach—that of connected knowing—you will gain access to the subjective world of the target because you will think and feel as if it were your subjective world. At the end of the day, you may not accept the target’s thinking; however, you will have succeeded in exploring the details of such, and will have therefore attained a more enlightened perspective from which to analyze, critique, and offer advice or counsel.

Let me emphasize that separate and connected knowing are methodological approaches to knowing. As such, they each have value in their appropriate contexts. Separate knowing uses techniques such as devil’s advocate and logical refutation. Its primary vehicle is logical argument. As such it is appropriate for engaging in critical thinking. In contrast, connected knowing is appropriate for empathizing. Its main vehicle is not argument but rather story telling. As Clinche expresses it,

Rather than trying to evaluate the perspective she is examining, she tries to understand it. Rather than asking, "Is it right?" she asks, "What does it mean?" When she asks, "Why do you think that?" she means, "What in your experience led you to that position?" and not "What evidence do you have to back that up?" She is looking for the story behind the idea. The voice of separate knowing is argument; the voice of connected knowing is narration.

Thus, to empathize, you should ask the target questions that facilitate the telling of a story. Open-ended questions like “What do you mean when you say you are a failure?” “Can you tell me more about how you felt when you were left out of the wedding party?” “What did she say when you told her how you felt?” do not judge or challenge what is being claimed; rather they prompt targets to develop their narratives in order to understand them better.

5. Use Reflection

Notice that the latter questions are open-ended, meaning that they cannot be answered with a yes or no. Such questions accordingly facilitate dialogue and therefore help to foster understanding. Additionally, a device that can further promote empathic understanding is that known as reflection. First introduced by psychologist Carl Rogers as a way to express empathetic understanding in the context of counseling, reflection involves attempting to clarify what another is saying by reflecting (not parroting) back what a target is thinking or feeling. “It sounds like you are feeling very disappointed by not having gotten a raise,” “So, it appears that you are thinking that others are negatively judging you when you make a mistake.” Such questions not only help to facilitate the target’s development of her narrative as well demonstrate that she is being heard; they also help to engage one as a partner in exploring the subjective life of the target, thereby promoting greater clarity and understanding of the narrative. This can increase the potential for “connecting” and “getting inside” this subjective world rather than seeing it from an external point of view.

6. Listen to the Target

Reflection aims at enhancing the target’s own understanding (as well as the understanding of the person who is reflecting) by keying into deeper meanings and implications embedded in the target’s narrative. It is good if it does just that and poor if it does not add anything to what the target has already said. So saying “It sounds like you don’t like your father” to one who has just said “I hate that son-of-a-bitch!” brings nothing to the table, either cognitively or emotionally. At most it is likely to be greeted with a “No duh.” In contrast, the response, “It sounds like you feel your father was not there for you when you needed him” could open up new avenues for expanding the narrative. Indeed, even if the reflection is erroneous, it could still help to clarify things. But too many inaccurate reflections can also destroy the prospects for empathizing with the target. Listening carefully to the target’s narrative is accordingly essential in producing useful reflections; for it is only by “active” listening (which includes asking open-ended questions as mentioned) that you are most likely to see inside the subjective world so as to capture deeper meanings and implications of what the target is saying. So, if you are in a habit of talking at or lecturing others, instead of listening to them, you are not likely to be empathetic, unless you make a concerted effort to overcome this habit.

7. Use self-disclosure as appropriate

One way to not listen carefully is to spend your time talking about yourself. Indeed, others are not likely to open up and share their private subjective worlds with you if they have little opportunity to discuss themselves and think that you are more interested in yourself than them. Nevertheless, self-disclosure can be a useful and powerful way of connecting with shared values when it is relevant and not excessive. Indeed, self-disclosure that brings your own subjective world in proximity to that of the target’s can also embellish and enhance empathy. “I remember when my father told me I would never amount to anything; I know how bad it made me feel!” Here, self-disclosure of your own experiences can help to illuminate the target’s anguish over having been rejected by his father. It can promote resonance between you and the target through expression of shared experiential encounters that engender shared, interpretations, interests, and values.

8. Properly distance yourself to and from the target’s subjective world

Aristotle admonished us to seek “the golden mean” between excess and deficiency in matters related to the passions. For example, moral virtues such as courage avoid the extremes between cowardice and foolishness; friendliness avoids the extremes of rudeness and flattery; and temperance of insensibility and self-indulgence. Similarly, as a moral virtue, empathy can be seen as a mean between two extremes: that of being too distant from the subjective world of the target and too close to it. Indeed, if you are preoccupied with your own personal life issues then you are not likely to get close enough to the subjective world of the target to empathize with the target about her issues. On the other hand, if you become too personally involved in that subjective world, you will lose the Rogerian “as if”—thereby eviscerating the distinction between yourself and the other. Thus, the key to resonating with the target’s subjective world is to avoid both extremes. Say you have gone through a messy divorce and are now listening to a friend who is going through a similar divorce. If you begin to see your friend’s narrative as that of your own and begin to project your own emotions of anguish onto it, then your friend’s subjective world becomes your own; you no longer have any ability to constructively relate to your friend’s plight because it is your own. You are then lost in that world, ineptly drowning in it along with your friend. On the other hand, if you come at your friend’s plight with a cold “get over it” and accordingly fail to connect with your friend, then you are too far from your friend’s subjective world to be of much use. So what is the proper distance and how do you get there?

Here an analogy may prove useful. When you experience a work of art as art, you must take the right perspective. You can’t be too personally involved in it and you can’t be too impersonally related to it. Aesthetician Edward Bullough refers to this balance of personal involvement as “psychical distance” and maintains that what is “both in appreciation and production, most desirable is the utmost decrease of Distance without its disappearance.” By this he means that both consumers of art as well as the artists themselves must strive to get as close personally to the object or process of art up to the point where getting any more personally involved would destroy their ability to see the object or process as distinct from their own personal life situation. For example, he tells us to imagine a life-threatening fog at sea, and then, at that point just before we are overcome by terror, we put the phenomenon “out of gear with our practical, actual self; by allowing it to stand outside the context of our personal needs and ends - in short, by looking at it 'objectively,' …” So that the veil surrounding you, “blurring the outline of things and distorting their shapes into weird grotesqueness” becomes a thing of beauty rather than something about to devour and annihilate you. Such an objectifying of the emotional experience is not, however, depersonalized. “Distance,” states Bullough, “does not imply an impersonal, purely intellectually interested relation… On the contrary, it describes a personal relation, often highly emotionally coloured, but of a peculiar character. Its peculiarity lies in that the personal character of the relation has been, so to speak, filtered.”

As applied to empathetic distance, the same filter applies. For example, your adult child tells you how she is unhappily married and how her husband is self-centered and insensitive; and as she begins to develop her narrative you catch yourself becoming increasingly irate and about to tell her to divorce the “asshole.” But, instead, you change your perspective to resonate with a deeper appreciation for your child’s feelings—her sense of hopelessness, forlornness, neglect, and disillusionment. You thus transform your outrage, away from its practical preoccupation, to focus on and connect with the shared human values that are at stake. As such, the experience remains highly emotionally charged, but the practical distractions—the condemnation and judgment about how to fix the problem are “filtered out.”

9. Practice it!

Of course, when strong emotions are kindled it is not always easy to apply such a filter, but this is precisely why empathy takes practice and perseverance in order to cultivate the right habit. It is also why empathy is a virtue or excellence of being human.

So I urge you to practice applying these guidelines when a friend, family member, significant other, colleague, client, or other relationship of yours just wants someone with whom to talk. Since it is not hard to find such contexts in the mainstream of life, it is easy enough to find occasion to practice empathizing. Practice won’t make you perfect because nobody’s perfect; but it can, indeed, help to make you more empathetic. And that can, in turn, be of inestimable value in improving the quality of your interpersonal relationships.

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