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The complex dynamics of empathy

“Never criticise a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins,” is an old (Red) Indian proverb. Today in the customer care industry, we expect employees to be extremely empathetic in their dealings. They are taught to spout phrases such as, “I can understand what you feel…”. It is not always easy to place oneself in another’s shoe. More often than not, it comes off as an empty sort of phrase.

What is empathy? It is, in the words of Carl Rogers, “to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it.”

My friend lost her octogenarian father a couple of years back. She almost cried herself sick. I failed to understand what she was feeling though I was there for her. I spouted inanities such as, life has to end sometime, he did not suffer…. I felt that a person who is in her fifties should not feel such grief…

Life came full circle, and I lost my father. He died and a part of me died along with him. I then understood what it was to lose a parent. I mourned his death.

Then, can empathy be learnt by someone who has undergone a similar loss? Can two experiences be similar? No two individuals share the same kind of passion, and even if they do they can’t have the same experience. For different people operate at different levels.

Can empathy be taught? More importantly, can it be learnt?

As human beings, we love to give our own advice that comes from our own experience. We want to explain our own feelings. As Marshall Rosenberg, the author, gently and pithily advised, “Empathy… calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.”

Where did empathy come from? As a word, empathy has a history of just about 140 years. In the year 1873, a German philosopher was the first to use the word “Einfühlung”, to explain how we “feel into”.

Carl Rogers, the American psychologist on whose works is based much of our modern understanding on empathy, wrote Empathic – An Unappreciated Way of Being. In that, he proposed that empathy is a process, rather than a state.

In the brain

Professor V.S Ramachandran, the neuroscientist whose TED talks on “Mirror Neurons” attracts phenomenal viewership, says: “…If I really and truly empathise with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathise with your pain — saying in effect that the person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.”

Being Empathetic develops self-awareness, humour and complex thinking.

Sympathy is when we can express what one would consider socially and culturally acceptable condolences on another’s plight. Though I commiserated with my friend when she lost her father, I was being merely sympathetic. I was not connected with her.

Empathy is what makes us human. We need to be connected and feel connected in order to work in a team. People are not tuned to empathise. Emily McDowell designed cards called empathy cards because she believed that cancer fighters expect a special kind of understanding and none of the commercial cards came even close to expressing the right level of empathy. “It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realising it.”

We can develop our empathetic skills by being more aware. To understand others we need to pay close attention to their body language. Sometimes we do understand the feeling of others but are not aware of how to communicate our thoughts and feelings. We need to learn the right modulation and mean what we say.

Can empathy be extended using one’s imagination? In a speech before he became President, Barack Obama stressed how important it is “to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us... 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.”

I believe the best way to develop our empathetic skills is to treat others the way we would like to be treated, and this teaching process needs to start young. Then the phrases used by people would not be a mere ‘lip service’ and would be genuine.

(The author is a behavioural skills facilitator E-mail:

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Printable version | Aug 16, 2022 6:40:25 pm |