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Empathy Lesson One: Empathy is different than compassion

Most people believe that empathy is compassion. I routinely ask the people in my empathy training classes to ask five of their acquaintances, “How do you define empathy?” and to do this without saying what they think empathy is. The respondents

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The world definitely needs more compassion, but compassion is distinct from empathy

routinely report back with a story about altruism, charity, niceness, and prosocial behavior. “Prosocial behavior” is an action or intervention that helps one’s neighbors in deeds and words. And, heavens knows, the world needs more compassion. However, compassion is distinct from empathy. This series of posts will say how.

Most people regard empathy as something like a switch that one can turn on or off. One has it or one hasn’t. Even books that promise to train you in empathy say that the book is going to tell you how to get it. Note this implies you haven’t got it. This is not a good way to regard your prospective audience or client. This series proposes an alternative perspective on the matter. Empathy is more like a dimmer – a dial that one can tune up or down – depending on the situation. This is not easy to do, which is why training and practice are needed.

You know how we can feed everyone on the planet, so that there should be no need for people to get sick and die due to starvation? Thanks to the Green Revolution, miracle seeds, and the economies of scale of agri-business enough food exists to provide everyone with at least a minimum level of nutrition? Yet people are starving. People are starving in the Middle East, Africa, and even in desperate parts of the inner city in the USA. People are starving because of politics (in the negative sense), aggression, prejudice, break downs in social justice, and break downs in community. There is enough food to go around, but it is badly distributed. Likewise, with empathy. There is enough empathy to go around; but it is badly distributed. Organizational politics, human aggression and narcissism, stress and burnout, attempts to control and dominate, all result in empathy “going off the rails.”

Therefore, I and the proponents of empathy with whom I align do not call for “more” empathy, but rather for “expanded” empathy. The difference is subtle. Saying “we need more empathy here,” implies the person lacks empathy and that is an insult. In the extreme cases – serial killers, psychopaths, people on the autistic spectrum – they do in fact lack empathy in a technical, diagnosable sense. However, in most cases, people have a significant empathic ability with which the individual may be out of touch at a given moment or in a particular situation. Their empathy is implicit and is waiting to be expanded. Therefore, the call goes out for expanded empathy – to leverage that grain of sand of empathy that already exists and develop it, if not into a mountain, at least into large hill of empathy. Experience indicates that calls for “more empathy” result in a breakdown of empathy because the call is experienced as a dignity violation. “Are you saying that I lack empathy? How insulting. Humpf!” Well, not exactly. I am saying that expanded empathy would make a difference in getting unstuck, reestablishing relatedness, and overcoming the challenges at hand. This may seem like a rhetorical flourish, and perhaps at some level it is that too; but it is really an accurate description of the subtlety of the human situation in which people assume their own point of view is right – and, therefore, is the empathic one. With that in mind, we acknowledge this is going to take some work.

One reason that empathy training programs have not worked or have had mixed results is that they train the participants in compassion, being nice, conflict resolution, baby and child care, and a number of worthy and related tasks. This is all excellent, and the use of empathic methods in these areas is making the world a better place, so keep it up. There is nothing wrong with being nice and so on. Pardon the double negative: don’t not be nice. But something is missing – empathy. Expanding one’s empathy requires an engagement with one’s own inauthenticities around empathy. Most people would rather not look at their own blind spots about empathy. Most people would rather not look at how their own empathy breaks down and fails. Expanding one’s empathy requires engaging with one’s own resistance to empathy. Until we engage with our own resistance to empathy we will remain stuck in our blind posts, break downs, burn outs, and compassion fatigue.

The courageous person knows fear but is not stopped by it. The empathic person also knows fear – fear of being vulnerable, fear of resistance, fear of rejection, fear of compassion fatigue. This introduction acknowledges the empathy of the readers – your courage in taking on the issues that you need to engage in order to expand your empathy and that of the community. “Courage” does not mean not being afraid or experiencing fear. It means being afraid and going forward in spite of one’s fear. Likewise, with empathy. The empathic person goes forward into authentic relationships individually and in the community in spite of fear.

The challenge up front is to get access to the foundation of empathy. The architect building a structure knows that the building has to be based on bedrock. You have to go down to what is stable and abides. If the foundation does not go down to bedrock, the structure can be magnificent, beautiful, and elegant; but it will inevitably crack, lean over like the leaning Tower of Pisa, and then fall over due to a faulty foundation. If human relations are the building and empathy is the foundation of the building., then we first have to explore what is bedrock on which the foundation is supported. And if one regards empathy as the foundation of human relatedness, we are in effect asking – what is the bedrock of bedrock? On what is empathy itself founded? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: Authenticity. Authenticity is basic to empathy. Without authenticity, nothing works. Not even empathy.

For those who simply cannot stand the suspense of knowing that empathy is not compassion and wanting then to have a definition of empathy, here is the proposal that will be developed in this series. Empathy is the form of authentic human relatedness in which one person is receptive in a vicarious experience to the experience of the other person in which this vicarious experience is processed further in understanding of the other person as a possibility [empathic understanding], appreciates the perspective of the other person from the other’s point of view [the folk definition of empathy as talking a walk in the other’s shoes], and responds in such a way that the other person gets her or his own experience back from the listener in a form that is recognized as one’s own. It will take some work to unpack these four dimensions of empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness. That is why this is a series. Stand by for the next exciting episode.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD

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