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Out With Empathy

It's actually part of the problem

Almost universally, empathy is considered to be a desirable, even admirable, quality to exude. The online dictionary at defines “empathy” as: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. From this perspective, we might be able to appreciate why it has come to be such a highly prized quality.

For personal friends or helping professionals to be skilled empathisers means that they would be able to genuinely identify with, and even vicariously experience, the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of their friends or the people they are helping. Just to be clear about what it is we are discussing, the first two (of four) definitions of “vicarious” in are: 1. performed, exercised, received, or suffered in place of another; and, 2. taking the place of another person or thing, acting or serving as a substitute.

Putting the definitions of “empathy” and “vicarious” together might help to explain why I’ve come to feel so crotchety about empathy. There’s an inconvenient detail with regard to empathy. The fact is, it’s impossible to experience the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. It can’t happen genuinely, vicariously, or any other way. This isn’t just an academic problem or a pedantic quibbling over semantics. When we believe we know what another person has gone through or how they’re feeling, we can then make assumptions about them and feel justified in advising them as to what they should do to improve their situation.

Presuming to know how other people should live their lives, and telling people, even very nicely, what they should do to make things better for themselves, would be a useful strategy if we could legitimately ever know how another person is making sense of their world. But we can’t. We all experience the world uniquely. We can certainly think about how we might have felt or responded if we’d gone through the situation being described to us, but it is a big mistake to assume that our imagined reactions are a close approximation to the authentic experiences of the other person.

So, I’m going to boldly suggest that, by inventing the concept of “empathy”, we have given ourselves the licence to substitute our own ideas about what went on in place of the actual descriptions of what occurred. To be sure, the substitution doesn’t always occur straight away. We often obtain some information from the other person before we “know what they mean” and begin to think about our own experiences. Perhaps the best empathisers, are the worst listeners, because they’re the quickest to “know” what the other person is going through.

Have you ever been in a conversation with another person in which you were explaining a difficulty to them and they responded with something like “I know how you feel”, and then started talking about an incident that occurred to them? The value we place on empathy needs to be seriously reconsidered.

Rather than moving ever nearer to a closer identification with, or vicarious experiencing of, another person’s situation through the use of razor sharp empathy skills, we could be more helpful by maintaining a stance of sustained ignorance. “No, I have no idea how it must have been for you. From what you’ve said, it sounds awful. Can you tell me some more about how you got through it?”

Curiosity, not empathy, might be the most useful attitude to adopt based on our design as creatures who control their own experiences. Each of our livings is sui generis. Lives that have been deeply entwined for decades remain unique. Not even identical twins have identical experiences. Nor can these twins live through the experiences of each other. From the very beginning, the environments of identical twins are different because Identical Twin A resides in the environment of Identical Twin B, and Identical Twin B inhabits the environment of Identical Twin A.

Michael Coghlan/flickr/Empathy, labelled for reuse
Source: Michael Coghlan/flickr/Empathy, labelled for reuse

Since we are unique, and given that the first (of four) definitions of “curiosity” is: 1. the desire to learn or know about anything, it seems to make sense that curiosity, instead of empathy, would be the most appropriate approach to take when interacting with others. What I have in mind here is a genuine curiosity that is fuelled by a desire to know or learn more. I’m not thinking of some kind of a “hidden agenda” curiosity where questions are only being asked to guide or lead the person to some conclusion that the asker has already thought of. The spirit of genuine curiosity is a humble acceptance of our innocence when it comes to the experiences of others, coupled with an eagerness to know more driven only by the marvel of life itself.

Curiosity is especially useful when helping is on the agenda. With an attitude of genuine curiosity that is attuned to the other person’s responses, the person wishing to be helpful will seek to keep learning from the person being helped. As the person who is being helped explains more and more about their situation to the helper, they will inadvertently be explaining it to themselves as well. In a conversation where curiosity features strongly therefore, both the listener and the explainer come to know more about the experiences of the explainer.

So, when you’re listening to the tales of other people, assume that you don’t know how things must be for them, and seek to find out. As soon as you get the sense that you’re on the same page, check again, you might not be. You might not even be in the same book!

Understanding others more clearly may be the key to building a better world. And perhaps the path to a better understanding, is to first recognise that we can never genuinely appreciate what it means to live the life of another. A world that is more caring, more concerned, and ultimately more ideal for all its tenants, will be one where, with authentic, unadulterated curiosity, we seek to learn more about each other rather than empathically assuming we know how it is to live life through someone else’s eyes. It’s curiosity, not empathy, that will help us accept each other and live harmoniously together in the midst of our controlling natures.

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