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Empathy: The one-minute training [no kidding!]

People want to know: Can empathy be taught? People complain and authentically struggle: I just don’t get it—or have it. In spite of the substantial affirmative evidence already cited, the debate continues.

The short answer is: Yes, empathy can be taught.

The one-minute empathy training - illustration (c) Alex Zonis

The one-minute empathy training – illustration (c) Alex Zonis

The one minute empathy training is: most people are naturally empathic. Remove the obstacles to empathy and empathy comes forth.

Remove the resistances to empathy and empathy expands.  

Eliminate the obstacles to empathy and a space of acceptance and toleration spontaneously comes froth.

What happens is that people unwittingly have been taught to suppress their empathy. People have been taught to conform, follow instructions, and do as they are told. We are taught in first grade to sit in our seats and raise our hands to be called on and speak. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is good and useful at the time. No one is saying, “Leap up and run around yelling” (unless it is summer vacation!). But compliance and conformity are trending; and arguably the pendulum has swung too far from the empathy required for communities to work effectively for everyone, not just the elite and privileged at the top of the food chain.

Now do not misunderstand this: people are born with a deep and natural capacity for empathy, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do arithmetic and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does not expand our empathy or our community. It does not help the cause of expanded empathy that rule-making and the drumbeat of compliance are growing by leaps and bounds.

Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the barriers are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. There is no catch, no “gotcha.” That is the one-minute empathy training, pure-and-simple.

The work at hand? Remove the blocks to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, over-identification, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, censorship, denial, manipulation, competing to be the biggest victim, injuries to self-esteem, and narcissistic merger—and empathy spontaneously expands, develops, and blossoms. Now that is going to require more than a minute!

Studying the Humanities and literature, art and music, rhetoric and languages, opens up areas of the brain that map directly to empathy and powerfully activate empathy. Read a novel. Publish a blog post. Go to the art museum. Participate in theatre. These too are empathy lessons, fieldwork, and training in empathic receptivity.

Reduce or eliminate the need for having the right answer all the time. Dialing down narcissism, egocentrism, entitlement (in the narrow sense), and dialing up questioning, motivating relatedness, encouraging self-expression, inspiring inquiry and contribution, developing character, and, well, expanding empathy.

Yes, empathy can be taught, but it does not look like informational education. It looks like shifting the person’s relatedness to self and others, developing the capacity for empathy, accessing the grain of empathy that has survived the education to conformity. Anything that gets a person in touch with her or his humanness counts as training in empathy.

(Note: Putting the “one minute” into the “one minute training” so that readers would not have to work too hard was hard work. I did the work of reviewing over a hundred publications on empathy training, the two dozen most significant of which are listed here: For evidence-based research on empathy training see the Bibliography and start with this list.  

[1] Angera et al. 2006; Antoni et al. 2011; Brunero et al. 2010; Chiu et al. 2011; Coke et al. 1978; Davis et al. 1996; Decety et al. 2012; Del Canale et al. 2012; Golan et al. 2006; Gordon 2005; Hadwin et al. 1997; Halpern 2001; Hojat et al. 2009; Hojat et al. 2011; Levine 2012; Ozcan et al. 2012; PBS 2013; Pace et al. 2009; Pecukonis 1990; Riess 2013; Riess, Kelley et al. 2014; Riess, Kelley et al. 2012; Therrien 1975; Zaki and Cikara 2015 (Note – this required more than one minute!)

For those interested in more than one-minute of training: You do not have to buy the book, Empathy Lessons, to get the research, but if you would like more detail see especially Chapters Four and Six in Empathy Lessons (click here to get EMPATHY Lessons from Amazon). Also of interest: A Rumor of Empathy

Remove the resistance to empathy and empathy grows, develops, and blossoms. In every instance of resistance to empathy, the empathy training consists in identifying, reducing, or eliminating, the resistance to empathy. When the resistance is reduced, empathy has space to develop, and it does so spontaneously as well as through providing explicit practices, tactics, strategies, and training .

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

The Evidence: Empathy is good for your health and well-being

Empathy is good for your health and well-being: Empathy is on a short list of stress reduction practices including meditation (mindfulness), Tai Chi, and Yoga. Receiving empathy in the form of a gracious and generous listening is like getting a spa treatment for the soul. But do not settle for metaphors.

For evidence-based research on empathy, empathy and stress reduction, and empathy training you may start by googling: Antoni et al. 2011; Ciaramicoli 2016; Del Canale et al 2012; Farrow et al. 2007; Irwin et al. 2012; Maes 1995, 1999; Pollack et al. 2002; Rakel et al. 2009; Segerstrom and Miller 2004; Slavich et al. 2013 [this list is not complete].

You do not have to buy the book, Empathy Lessons, to get the research, but if you would like more detail see especially Chapters Four and Six in Empathy Lessons (click here to get book from Amazon).

[Also included are chapters on the Top 30 Tips and Techniques for Expanding Empathy, Overcoming Resistance to Empathy, Empathy Breakdowns, Empathy as the New Love, Empathy versus Bullying, and more.] 

The healing powers of stress reduction are formidable. Expanding empathy reduces stress; and reducing stress expands empathy. A positive feedback loop is enacted. Expanding empathy expands well-being.  Here empathy is both the end and the means.

A substantial body of evidence-based science indicates that empathy is good for a person’s health. This is not “breaking news” and was not just published yesterday. We don’t need more data, we need to start applying it: we need expanded empathy.

Evidence-based research demonstrates the correlation between health care providers who deliver empathy to their patients and favorable healthcare

Well-being rides the wave of empathy: sketch by Alex Zonis (AlexZonisArt.com)

Well-being rides the wave of empathy: sketch by Alex Zonis (AlexZonisArt.com)

outcomes. What is especially interesting is that some of these evidence-based studies specifically excludepsychiatric disorders and includemainline medical outcomes such as reduced cholesterol, improved type 2 diabetes, and improvement in related “life style” disorders.

Generalizing on this research, a small set of practices such as receiving empathy, meditation (mindfulness), yogic meditation, and Tai Chi, promote well-being by reducing inflammation. These practices are not reducible to empathy (or vice versa), but they all share a common factor: reduced inflammation. These anti-inflammatory interventions have been shown to make a difference in controlled experiments, evidence-based research, and peer-reviewed publications.

Using empathy in relating to people is a lot like using a parachute if you jump out of an airplane or getting a shot of penicillin if one has a bacterial infection. The evidence is overwhelming that such a practice is appropriate and useful in the vast majority of cases. The accumulated mass of decades of experience also counts as evidence in a strict sense. Any so-called hidden or confounding variables will be “washed out” by the massive amount of evidence that parachutes and penicillin produce the desired main effect.

Indeed it would be unethical to perform a double blind test of penicillin at this time, since if a person needed the drug and it were available it would be unethical not to give it to him. Yes, there are a few exceptions – some people are allergic to penicillin. But by far and in large, if you do not begin with empathy in relating to other people, you are headed for trouble.

Empathy is at the top of my list of stress reduction methods, but is not the only item on it. Empathy alongwith mindfulness (a form of meditation), Yoga, Tai Chi, spending time in a sensory deprivation tank (not otherwise discussed here), and certain naturally occurring steroids, need to be better known as interventions that reduce inflammation and restore homeostatic equilibrium to the body according to evidence based research.

The biology has got us humans in a bind, since it did not evolve at the same rate as our human social structures. When bacteria attack the human body, the body’s immune system mounts an inflammatory defense that sends macrophages to the site of the attack and causes “sickness behavior” in the person. The infected person takes to bed, sleeps either too much or too little, has no appetite (or too much appetite), experiences low energy, possibly has a fever, including the “blahs,” body aches, and flu-like symptoms. This response has evolved over millions of years, and is basically healthy as the body conserves its energy and fights off the infection using its natural immune response.

Now fast forward to modern times. This natural response did not envision the stresses of modern life back when we were short stature, proto-humanoids inhabiting the Serengeti Plain and defending ourselves against large predators. Basically, the body responds in the same way to the chronic stressors of modern life—the boss at work is a bully, the mortgage is over-due, the children are acting out, the spouse is having a midlife crisis—and the result is “sickness behavior”—many of the symptoms of which resemble clinical depression—but there is no infection, just inflammation.

The inflammation becomes chronic and the body loses its sensitivity to naturally occurring anti-inflammatory hormones, which would ordinarily kick in to “down regulate” the inflammation after a few days. Peer reviewed papers demonstrate that interventions such as empathy reduce biological markers of inflammation and restore equilibrium. This is also a metaphor. When an angry—“inflamed”—person is listened to empathically—is given a “good listening” as I like to say—the person frequently calms down and regains his equilibrium.

Empathy migrates onto the short list of inflammation reducing interventions. The compelling conclusion is that empathy is good for your well-being.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project