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Empathy and Hermeneutics

Empathy has been given a bad rap in hermeneutic circles by being degraded to a psychological mechanism whereas empathy is rather a way of being in relatedness to individuals and community. Key term: being in relatedness. (For those who may not be tuned into “hermeneutic circles” the short definition is: theory of interpretation. When we open our mouths and speak, a lot of what comes out is interpretation.)

The power of empathy – like that of hermeneutics at large – occurs in cleaning up misunderstandings, breakdowns, and miscommunications. A single diagram on p 35 of Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide says it all, reproduced here for your convenience.

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Enter the hermeneutic circle of empathy and create a breakthrough – success – in relatedness out of the breakdown(s). The empathy lesson is that, when handled with empathy, breakdowns often lead to breakthroughs.

If empathic relatedness misfires in emotional contagion, conformity, projections, or getting lost in translation, then one approach is to abandon empathy and become angry, resigned and cynical. An alternative and better approach would be to expand empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness.

For example, if one is experiencing emotional contagion in relating to another person, then one can respond with what I call the favorite indoor sport of academics – over-intellectualization. Go into your head. Nothing wrong with that as such, but it does not expand empathy. A different approach is to take the vicarious experience – the feeling of the feeling of the other – that has been communicated in emotional contagion like an after image of the other’s experience. Use this vicarious experience to be receptive to the other’s experience. Use it as input to understanding what the other person is experiencing.

In another example, empathy can break down in conformity – pressure to conform to social standards or practices that actually empty one’s experience of satisfaction and even be destructive of community. One follows the crowd. One does what “they say.” With apologies to Henry David Thoreau, one leads the life of quiet desperation of the modern mass of men. Instead of promoting conformity – or even a superficial nonconformity – one can use empathic understanding and ask: Who is this other person as a possibility?

If you look at the rules you make up about what is possible in your relationships, then you get the freedom to relate to the rules precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” You stop “shoulding” on yourself. You have a breakthrough in what is possible through empathic understanding. Satisfaction in relatedness expands. Relationships become satisfying in ways not previously envisioned. Empathy grows and life is enriched.

So far, this is “bottom up” – so-called affective empathy. Yes, even the empathic understanding is understanding of the possibilities in which we live. Strictly speaking, that is not affective, but neither is it cognitive. It is precognitive. However, when I truly get stuck in trying to understand the other individual and her situation, then I make use of “top down” empathy. This is the folk aspect of empathy: I take a walk in their shoes. I think about – try to grasp in fundamental thinking – what it may be like being in their predicament. I “jump start” my relatedness through interpretation.

Taking a walk in the other person’s shoes—the folk definition of empathy—breaks down if you take that walk using an inaccurate shoe size. You then know where your shoe pinches, not hers. This is also called “projection.” The recommendation?

Take back the projections of your own inner conflicts onto other people. Take back your projections. Own them. You get your power back along with your projections. Stop making up meaning about what is going on with the other person; or, since you probably cannot stop making up meaning, at least distinguish the meaning—split it off, quarantine it, take distance from it, so that its influence is limited.

Having worked through your vicarious experiences, worked through possibilities for overcoming conformity and stuckness, and taken back your projections, you are ready to engage in communicating to the other person your sense of the other individual’s experience. You are going to try to say to the other what you got from what they told you, describing back to the other your sense of their experience. And what happens? Sometimes it works; sometimes you “get it” and the other “gets” that you “get it”; but other times the description gets “lost in translation.”

This breakdown of empathic responsiveness occurs within language. You fail to express yourself satisfactorily. I believed that I empathized perfectly with the other person’s struggle, but my description of her experience failed significantly to communicate to the other person what I got from listening to her.

Without empathic responsiveness, my empathy remains a tree in the forest that falls without anyone being there. My empathy remains silent, inarticulate, and uncommunicative. I get credit for a nice empathic try; but the relatedness between the persons is not an empathic one. If the other person is willing, then go back to the start and try again. Iterate. Learn from one’s mistakes and incomplete gestures.

Many additional examples of empathy successes and empathy breakdowns are available in the light-hearted look at the subject: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, including some twenty-eight full color illustrations by that celebrated artist Alex Zonis. If you only read one non-academic book on empathy, this is the one. Check it out here: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide.

(c) Lou Agosta and the Chicago Empathy Project

See Lou Agosta’s other books on empathy – academic and popular here: https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f