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Not All Empathy Is the Same

There are different kinds of empathy, perspective-taking alone being just one.

Many people believe that perspective-taking is empathy. For clarification, perspective-taking is what Daniel Goleman refers to as “cognitive empathy”, which is the lowest level of empathy.

The following are recent comments made by fellow mediators:

"Situations calling for an empathetic response can be taught. It is called validation. Assuring the party of being heard and validating their comments becomes empathy."

"It ain't magic, nor an epiphany; it simply may be a matter of freeing our natural curiosity, and -- within the practical bounds of empathy -- asking questions about the obvious. I have long believed that curiosity is part of the basic repertoire of mediation."

According to social science researcher Brene' Brown, empathy is a skill set and the core of empathy is perspective taking.

It's true that perspective-taking is something that trained mediators are typically taught to do. However, perspective-taking alone only allows a person to feel as though they have been heard and involves no further action.

With regard to perspective-taking and empathy, Dr. Brown says the following:

Perspective taking is normally taught or modeled by parents. The more your perspective is in line with the dominant culture, the less you were probably taught about perspective taking. In the United States, the majority culture is white, Judeo-Christian, middle class, educated, and straight.

We all see the world in a different way, based upon our information, insight and experiences. Among other things, this takes into account our age, sexual orientation, physical ability, gender, race, ethnicity, and spirituality.

We can't take off the lens from which we see the world.

Perspective taking is listening to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledging it as the truth. What you see is as true, real and honest as what I see, so let me be quiet for a minute, listen and learn about what you see. Let me get curious about what you see. Let me ask questions about what you see.

Empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. Staying out of judgment requires understanding. We tend to judge those areas where we're the most vulnerable to feeling shame ourselves. We don't tend to judge in areas where our sense of self-worth is stable and secure. In order to stay out of judgment, we must pay attention to our own triggers and issues.

Empathy reduces shame, whereas sympathy exacerbates it. There is a huge difference between feeling with someone and feeling for someone. Shame causes a person to believe they’re alone. Through empathy, we cause them to realize that they are not alone, which is why it is the antidote to shame. As Dr. Brown said in her book, I Thought It Was Just Me, “In most cases, when we provide sympathy we do not reach across to understand the world as others see it. We look at others from our world and feel sorry or sad for them. Inherent in sympathy is ‘I don’t understand your world, but from this view, things look pretty bad."

In other words, curiosity is central to perspective taking.

That being said, since perspective-taking is the core of empathy, those who perspective-take as Dr. Brown recommends, would understand the people with whom they are empathizing.

Always remember that people throughout the United States and the world come in all shapes and sizes. They hold different values, beliefs, biases, and assumptions, which are formed as a result of their personal backgrounds (upbringing) and life experiences.

Along those lines, not all beliefs are fact-based, regardless of how sincerely held they may be.

Those who believe that their truth is "the truth" lack perspective and perspective-taking is the core of empathy, which is the key to conflict resolution or management.

Seeing things from another person’s perspective enables people to deal with conflict not from a place of anger or a desire for retribution, but from an emotionally healthier place in which the other person’s emotional needs come first.

When people talk about unlocking possibilities, shifting paradigms, and the touching possibility of compassionate attention, such things require more than just cognitive empathy.

Unfortunately, rarely is something as simple as it may seem.

Cognitive empathy can be easily taught and requires no action beyond perspective-taking, which is why it can be so effectively utilized by narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths, as Daniel Goleman has explained.

Emotional empathy” occurs "when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious."

"Compassionate empathy” or "empathic concern” enables us to "not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed."

Nevertheless, Dr. Brown believes that “at any given moment, people are really trying to do the best they can with what they have and that our bests are all different."

I couldn’t agree more.

For example, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, Antonin Scalia (deceased), and many others sincerely believe that there is no such thing as homosexuality and that everyone is heterosexual. Such people sincerely believe that "gay" people are heterosexuals who are attracted to members of the same sex and/or are engaging in sexual acts with members of the same gender as a result of their "issues."

In fact, Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE), commonly known as “conversion therapy”, “reparative therapy” and “ex-gay therapy” is premised upon such a sincerely held belief. This is in spite of the fact that there is no scientific debate about whether homosexuality is a choice. The professional mental health and scientific organizations uniformly reject the idea. Many of them make even stronger statements about these issues.

Those holding the sincere belief that everyone is actually heterosexual suffer from cognitive dissonance, which results in a refusal to accept certain facts or to even consider the possibility that they may be incorrect in their belief.

Mental health professionals and others practicing any form of SOCE are by definition allowing their personal beliefs harm others. Such “treatment” has been found to be ineffective, and often to cause severe emotional harm, including suicidality. In other words, it is akin to psychological abuse.

As if that weren't bad enough, in 2015, a New Jersey jury found that "a nonprofit organization that claimed its so-called gay conversion therapy would turn gay men straight violated the state's consumer fraud act."

Homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1973, and removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) 43 years ago. Nevertheless, the implicit premise of SOCE is that homosexuality is a psychological disorder, because otherwise such therapeutic efforts make no sense. Thus, therapists and others who utilize some form of SOCE in their practice need to evaluate their personal beliefs with regard to homosexuality, because such “treatment” is not based on a pathology diagnosis.

Certainly, nobody will dispute the fact that some homosexuals don’t want to be homosexual, and seek SOCE. But that is only because they have been forced to hide their true selves in response to the way social norms have discriminated against them so strongly. They would prefer not having to hide the sexual orientation aspect of their lives, and not feel ashamed about it. The reason they have issues with their sexual orientation is due to the guilt, fear, and shame they experience--or expect to experience--from their family, friends and society. If society would stop shaming homosexuals, maybe homosexuals would not want to change their sexual orientation – something that cannot be changed, in any case, because it is not a psychological disorder but a natural human condition.

Perhaps we should change our families, our schools and our culture instead, so that homosexuals feel safe, accepted, and respected. Once we've moved beyond violence, political disenfranchisement and homophobia, then let's see how many homosexuals want to be "converted."

Instead of helping homosexuals to accept and love themselves for who they are, mental health care professionals and others who practice any form of SOCE are in essence reinforcing the guilt, fear, and shame that their parents and society have caused them to experience. And, SOCE is not therapy.

When any profession fails to monitor itself, the government will do so. As such, on September 30, 2012, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 1172 into law. This bill banned the use of SOCE with minors. Since then, Vermont, New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon and the District of Columbia have followed suit. The reason such bans are limited to minors is because when legally competent adults make poor decisions for themselves, the perception is that they only harm themselves.

Circling back around, the perspective-taking involved in cognitive empathy enables understanding as to how and why Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, Antonin Scalia and many others believe what they do and the actions they take in accordance with those sincerely held beliefs. However, while that empathy enables a deep understanding, it by no means requires agreeing with them, now or ever.

Depending upon the circumstances, the key to curiosity in conflict resolution may be to engender some sort of action beyond the perspective-taking, in order to unlock possibilities, shift paradigms, and take compassionate actions to help, if necessary. That requires more than "cognitive empathy" can offer.

Mastering all three kinds of empathy and being able to move from one to another as needed, depending upon the circumstances, requires training and daily practice.

Irrespective, Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, "You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: The depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger."

As such, one can hate Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, Antonin Scalia and others for the cognitive dissonance they experience as a result of their sincerely held beliefs and the harm they cause others as a result.

People are entitled to their beliefs. However, a line must be drawn when the beliefs of one person or a group of people harm another person or group of people.

Nevertheless, always keep in mind that people are really trying to do the best they can with what they have.

More from Mark B. Baer, Esq.
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