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Reclaiming Empathy in Online Therapy: An Imaginary Conversation with Sherry Turkle

Here is the verbatim transcript of the complete conversation between Lou and Arnon Rolnick, PhD, about Sherry Turkle’s memoire The Empathy Diaries (2021) and the debate about online therapy. 

For the complete video see: https://youtu.be/6OId-0QDFys

To listen to the podcast on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/6K8byq8UAs85lnVcSAj4DJ

Lou Agosta (Chicago, USA): Today’s conversation is entitled Reclaiming Empathy in Video Conversation: An Imaginary dialogue with Sherry Turkle. Today I’m having a conversation with my colleague and friends Arnon Rolnick, PhD, Psychology. I will let him introduce himself momentarily. Just once thought upfront – his commitment is to integrating biofeedback, psychology, and technology. He says – and I believe it is accurate and true – that he is incapable of being indifference. His exuberance, enthusiasm commitment and empathy are an inspiration to me, and I believe will be one to the listening, viewing audience. Great to see you!

 Arnon Rolnick (Tel Aviv, Israel): Great to see you and thank you for such a nice introduction so I want to share with you my almost 30 years of effort to integrate Psychotherapy Psychology and Technology. As a clinical psychologist I’ve been baffled by the power of those who characterize life in the 21 century. On one hand, technology and science are providing us with better ways to live; yet, on the other hand, people are suffering more. It is as thought technology helps us to neglect our selves. And before I will say a few words about my work in this area, I want to say why she [Sherry Turkle] is so important. She was a Pioneer and a guru.

Lou:  A pioneer and a guru 

Arnon: Yes – I will say a few words about my work and then the issue of empathy will lead us all the way. So it was her book The Second Self where she defines this computer as more than just the tube but part of our everyday personal and psychological lives. She looks at how the computer reflects on ourselves and our relationships with other. She’s claiming the technology defines the way we think and act. Turkle’s book, which was really the first one in this area, allowed us to view and re-evaluate our own relationship with technology. This was her first book and this was that the first moment that I thought “Wow!” interesting. And then came my own work as a psychologist. I felt that there is some gap between what happened in the meeting [between therapist and client] and then the person is going home and he either forgets or doesn’t do I what we decided he was do so. I thought we would like to do what in CBT they called homework I don’t like the name “home work,” but most people know 

Lou: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [CBT} and assignments there are sometimes assignments. Back to you

Arnon: II will even appreciate it, Lou, if sometimes my English is not so clear, you will help the audience to understand my accent. So it was sometimes early in 1995 – see how old am I – I think I work with biofeedback I thought why don’t you give that the patient not only a biofeedback but also a CD that you can work at home and we call it “De – Stress” and we sold it in Boots – you know the British Pharmacy [Boots the Chemist] and I so I thought that should be there the killer [“killer app”] that should be the most important thing you give to the world and apparently it didn’t work 

Lou: You send the patient home with a CD and there is an interactive media here – so already we’re in the online digital world and the patience or the clients or the individuals struggling – so what happens? They still are not that engaged? Explain it – what is the take away here?

Arnon: I will explain it – a little bit later when I speak about “Beating the Blues” – then the company – the British company hired me to help them develop already for the internet – first for the first CD – the program of cognitive behavioral therapy to help the patient overcome depression and anxiety. I thought again it would be wonderful idea – after seeing the patient, he will use this CD. The company thought differently. She said we don’t need a therapist. Just we will give them this program: eight 45-minute sessions and they will be cured.

Lou: And so you become [in]dispensable – you think maybe this is not going to work exactly as the British UK publishing company is imagining. But at some point, if the once the therapist, the psychotherapist, has designed the assignments, we no longer need you. So keep in touch! Have a great life good! What happened? 

Arnon: What happened is very interesting. There were about eight good [unintelligible] that it works. I felt strange – it was a good program – I was part of it but could it really replace the human element? Later on it was found that the picture is more complicated. It works well only when there was a nurse involved her and she helped them to do the program so the nurse…

Lou: Let me just to interrupt you here. it sounds like the human element – so you’re already dealing with the human element and the technological elements whether it’s a CD or whether you know it goes fully online in the cloud as we have it today and it turns out what turns out we have the psychotherapist step aside and it [the nurse] turns out perhaps to be the replacement therapist.

But we’re just calling him or her a nurse shows up – and we suspect the human touch – the therapeutic Alliance if you will – the Rapport between human beings may be a hidden common factor 

Arnon: Exactly. But this will allow me later after you will introduce your work and that will help me to divide the Psychotherapy into two main camps: the technique camps and the relationship camps. And I will talk about it only after you will tell us about your work about empathy 

Lou: That sounds like a good segue for me to say something about empathy and we’re going to do it – so hold that thought: there’s the relationship camp and the tips and technique camp. And so hold that though – and so back to me – thank you! I appreciate the shout out – who the heck am I anyway? One claim to fame that may be more than one but is to have authored three peer-reviewed books on empathy, starting with A Rumor of Empathy – in effect, virtual volumes one and two and then Empathy Lessons and Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. My PhD from the University of Chicago began with a dissertation on Empathy and Interpretation – so I’m not going to give the storied, complicated history of the distinction empathy at the time I was a graduate student. It’s a matter of public record, my dissertation adviser, Stephen Toulmin, was being psychoanalyzed by the colleagues here in Chicago I don’t know the name of his analyst – he may have told me – but Kohut was innovating in the matter of empathy and his colleagues Michael Franz Basch, Arnold Goldberg, Ernie Ernest S Wolf were innovating in the matter of Self Psychology – and is there anything to this concept empathy or is it just cumbaya stuff?  Really what’s the intellectual Providence? And it made a great dissertation for young graduate student and it is something meaningful to engage and so fast forward – I am not going to tell you about all of these books – they’re there’s actually available from your local online book seller. What I propose to do is provide really – no kidding – the one minute empathy training. You can actually do it in a minute. Now there are some conditions and qualifications – and so here it is: Drive out – get rid of – reduce –   drive out things such as aggression, hostility, bullying, cynicism, resignation, bad language, politics in the pejorative negative sense – you know we are political and often times it doesn’t bring out the best [in us] – drove those things out – and empathy naturally comes forth – people are naturally empathic – people want to be empathic – and will be so if given half a chance. So that’s it! That’s the training: get rid of the negatives and empathy shows up in the space of relatedness. I pause for breath. I see you have a question.

Arnon: Being also trained in psychoanalysis you’ll clearly represent the Kohutian self psychology view – people are good – but what about the Kleinians? How can we get rid of our aggression 

Lou: Well, thank you! I mean thank you: I mean human beings are naturally empathic; human beings are also naturally aggressive. We are a complicated species; and I have no easy answer. The difficult answer is that often times hostility and aggression are reactive. If you want to see somebody get angry – if you yourself get angry – if I find myself angry or even enraged, [then] one good question to ask myself – yourself – the people in the listening or viewing audience: who hurt your feelings? who perpetrated a dignity violation? or where did you not get the empathy and respect you deserved? cuz if you want to get a person angry, hurt their feelings – say something devaluing about their parents. It’s not going to go well. If you say something bad, it could get messy it’s just I have no [easy answer] – I mean we acknowledge the contribution of Melanie Klein. [Klein was] an incredible innovator. Let’s talk to some children. Freud’s innovating – Anna’s innovating – he’s got some ideas about infantile sexuality. Melanie Klein comes along – herself kind of a tortured genius in her own way – [she says] let’s talk to some children – and play therapy is invented. What a breakthrough – so I don’t know – there’s a lot of room for disagreement here but I’ve also seek some over lap and common ground. Hostility and aggression: there are a lot of things that can cause it. I mean, some of it may indeed be in it and species-specific. Nevertheless, who gets their feelings hurt and who experiences an empathy break down [or] a dignity violation. I claim that’s a candidate answer and so I may continue or you can get follow up

Arnon: So I think I’m responsible for the digression. 

Lou: A digression but a productive one – so we finished the one minute empathy training; and there’s a lot more to be said about empathy – here right now. [However] We’ll come back to that. I’m going to segue – I think usefully – I’m going to begin a conversation about the contribution of I believe it would be: Madame Professor Dr Sherry Turkle, PhD, social psychology MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). On a personal – the occasion is – I’m going to wave the book – [Lou holds up Turkle’s book, The Empathy Diaries, on the on-camera version of this conversation for YouTube] here her Memoir is published The Empathy Diaries (2021); and there she is as a child of tender age in the 1950s and the 1960s, coming up on the residential part of Long Island. The parents [actually] grandparents are Holocaust Survivors. They escaped Eastern Europe; and her mom marries a man named Mr. Zimmerman. Something is immediately strange – an unconventional something comes out. He’s performing certain kinds of I should say weird experiments that end up sounding like the work done by Mary Main and John Bowlby on attachment [the blank face gesture]. He’s leaving the kid – the young Sherry, the kid – forgive me, Professor Turkle, of tender age – alone in her room, .and letting her cry your eyes out. This guy has gotta go. The mom divorces Zimmerman and marries Milton Turkle, who has issues of his own, but two other children come along, her younger siblings. And here’s the – here’s the empathic moment – here’s the moment of the break down of empathy. At home she’s “Sherry Turkle’; [but]  at school, somehow given this bureaucracy, she’s a Sherry Zimmerman. Now in our time, this is second about to be now third quarter 2021, blended families what’s the issue? It’s somehow devaluing, stigmatizing, divorce- you know,  the feminist Revolution is occurring but divorce is still an issue one in this community – it is a Jewish community – non observant – living in genteel poverty – coming up in a kind of genteel poverty. Here’s the problem: [pretending to be Sherry’s parents]:  “Sherry, you’re not allowed to talk about it. You’re not allowed to talk about the fact that your last name really is Turkle but at school, it’s Zimmerman.” Holy mackerel! It’s a two-tone elephant in the room. It’s [confronting] and so here is my short review: this is a great memoire. It is in many ways a page-turner. I was engaged, and I’ll say just a little bit more about that [soon], and it is also entitled The Empathy Diaries, [but] it might be also [be] entitled The Breakdown of Empathy [diaries], because it gives an account of what Sherry has to survive to reclaim for Humanity. It goes well – she’s smart – her parents tell her or grandparents tell her: “Look, you are not going to typing class.” This is amazing – this is the 1950s. If she learns how to type, she will end up in the secretarial pool. “No, Sherry, you are going to be in the front of the class. You are going to be the teacher” They don’t let they refuse to let her do housework. “Read!” they say. I heard something similar in a kind of weird way. This is a way of improving one’s life and one’s humanity and of getting some empathy. She goes to MIT. She meets – she goes back and forth for a while. She ends up at the University of Chicago about a couple of years before I was there. So it is a page turner for me, cuz they’re she is in Social Science 122 – sitting in the classroom – Social Sci 122 – and in comes Professor Bruno Bettelheim. He brings his straight back wooden chair; puts it on the low stage; and the students, who are trying to speak truth to power, give it to him, he gives it to them back – [Bettelheim is] the author of so many books: Love is Not Enough, the empathy fortress, [oops, I mean], The Empty Fortress, The Children of the Dream – over to you for a digression – insert your story here – he goes and visits a Kibbutz for a few months and says a few things which become controversial – you grew up there – tell me – 

Arnon:  I was born in Kibbutz and I was there raised there in this unique type of experiment – experiment – experiment – and you know what? We still don’t know that result of the experiment. What I mean is that we develop in so many ways and how many of us became leaders in various areas but we also have some pain and maybe it has been in his own way. May I take the leave now? 

Lou: You have the conk shell –

Arnon: I want to say that again Sherry began with computers and she was fascinated with computers in particular and slowly she changed her ideas about the problems with computers – for example, she has many books – but I speak about two of them – both have explored how technology is changing the way we communicate – in particular, she raised concerns about the way in which organic social interaction can be degraded through constant exposure to lose every meaningful exchange with artificial intelligence. I will speak about artificial intelligence later on. In [Sherry’s book] Reclaiming Conversation, which is the book just before the one you mentioned 

Lou: Reclaiming Conversation [Lou hold sup the cover on camera]

Arnon: She is arguing – she is gathering data from schools [and] companies [and] families – she says: we forgot [how] to speak with each other. We [are] all the time doing it via devices – we type – we send SMS – but we don’t talk and that’s led her to the interview that we will talk [about] later on where she kind of arguing – and maybe you will express it better – that online therapy is something completely different from psychoanalysis – and we will talk about this [more later] – but let me come back to this distinction between the two camps – and I will try to explain how the internet when it entered into the Psychotherapy world how it affected the two camps in different ways. So let’s begin – what are the two camps? The technique camp and the relationship. And everybody who knows Psychotherapy – you know that there is the group that thinks that their relationship is (a) very important aide in understanding the problems of the patient and (b) in maybe curing. Now you know that the earlier relationship with the parental figure is very important and this might be reflected later on in the relationship with therapist so that that camp is clearly or might be worried or interested about how does online therapy work. It seems like you want to comment and talk or should I continue? 

Lou: – Well I have some comments I mean I think you hit the nail on the head so to speak in that the book you refer to – Reclaiming Conversation – she launches a Jeremiad – she is on a tear – you know, remember the Prophet Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible? He was angry about something – we’re talking about anger – and it’s not clear whose feelings got hurt – but the feelings of the people at the dinner table where dinner conversation and conversations between friends are interrupted by beeping, buzzing, alerting smartphones – she is on a rant that we have got what amounts to acquire attention deficit – it’s not like we were born ADD or ADHD – amphetamine-based interventions will not help, because it is acquired through the number of interruptions that – so she’s, you know, [on a tear] and that’s the immediate trigger if you will, which, I believe, you’re expressing – what I would say is you are then tracing the conversation in the direction of online therapy – and it’s because – I mean – it’s now, you know, we’re emerging from this pandemic – the positivity right here in Chicago – hopefully – fingers crossed – we are jinxed now, I said, but – let us not do magical thinking. The positivity rate in Chicago is last week was .6 per cent and I had said the pandemic is at least temporarily over when it hits .5% but on other places it’s 6% and 10% and the struggle continues and we are really not going to go into it and there is a conversation about technology which we are not going to go into – technology can be used for great good and there can be big issues with it. That’s the point I wanted to make. She launches a Jeremiad – back over to you. 

Arnon: We spoke about the relationship camp and how they acted to [towards] the Internet and I mentioned the technique camp – this camp who believes that what changes people’s behavior and thought and emotion is: we should give them technique. It could be cognitive behavioral technique – it could be emotion-focused therapy – it could be hypnotic technique.

Lou: You are not anxious or depressed – you just lack skill – that’s an enormous over-simplification, but there may be some useful techniques that can be improved and manage one’s anxiety and depression in a downward Direction 

Arnon: Yes, and I should have made [note] that part of my research has dealt with this CBT techniques and I’m not I’m not in any way against it [unintelligible] Now what happened when the Internet entered the picture?  Beating the Blues

Lou: Beating the Blues – I’ve got the name of the British company – we give them a shout out if they still exist: Beating the Blues – sounds good. 

Arnon: But there is today ten thousand applications programs trying to do what beating the blues did, and it’s amazing how people are still trying to help or be helped by online application. Now just a the beginning of June there is a big article in the New York Times about an application called something –BOT – Webot – something – and it says that this application is working so well that one cannot differentiate if the bot – this machine – is a human being or behind it [a computer] or in fact, they are using a some engines like Google is doing now and – has developed Meena – a computer or machine – 

Lou: A system of hardware-software stuff – Meena – 

Arnon: That passed the tutor test –

Lou: The Turing test – Allen Turing – can I tell the difference between – in a conversational exchange between someone who supposedly hidden in a room or a machine or a device the Turing test and it turns out – we think – natural language has fallen to a technology that we now have technologies that can simulate natural a conversation with another human being the debate continues

Arnon: The debate continues and it is interesting to note that Sherry Turkle was married to one of [the members of] the group that developed Eliza. Eliza is another very early program that used Rogerian concepts to try to imitate Psychotherapy. Of course it was by far more simple. But let’s go back to the technique camps and a lot of effort to get rid of the psychologist I do at what Sherry Turkle says “the robotic moment.” She has a very strong anxiety – or she’s afraid that this artificial intelligence idea making – how can I say? – It’s dangerous to our humankind 

Lou: Humanity – yes – yes – 

Arnon:  Humanity – I spoke about the technique camp and they’re mistaken direction; and I agree with Sherry [as] she speaks a lot about the dangers in this robotics [approach]. Oops, my chair almost fell.

Lou: If you disappear off camera, we will await your return. Maybe I can pick up the thread usefully at this point and a segue to the immediate occasion where you called me a few weeks ago and you said: “Hey, you know, let us have a conversation about her concerns and objections. I mean, she’s got some energy for this matter. She publishes – and I’m going to quote the publication that catalyzed our back-and-forth conversation: Afterward – here’s the title: “Afterword: Reclaiming Psychoanalysis: Sherry Turkle in Conversation With the Editors of Psychoanalytic Perspectives,” Volume 14: 2017 in this one and in this article, she raises a number of serious objections about the very possibility performing online therapy and she makes the case for co-presence. What I want to say at this point is – 

[Video freezes and Internet connection is lost – connection is restored]

Arnon: We had some problems – we don’t know where was it – I don’t hear – you are on mute – we can we use this moment – I don’t know what exactly happened 

Lou: I’m so I’m just going to pick it up I’m going to pick it up at “Afterword Reclaiming Psychoanalysis: Sherry Turkle in Conversation With the Editors of Psychoanalytic Perspectives

[[Video is frozen again – and connection lost]] 

Lou: You were frozen

Arnon: You were frozen also

Lou: Things like this happen

Arnon: And it happens in online conversations – just a moment – and the question – how the therapist and the patient react to this? One could be completely angry – the patient – or the therapist could be: I’m not psychotherapy online anymore or we could use it 

Lou: I mean you might reboot the router too for that matter – that could make a difference – 3, 2, 1 – the name of the article in Psychoanalytic Perspectives, Volume 14, year 2017:  “Afterword: Reclaiming psychoanalysis: Sherry Turkle in Conversation With the Editors of Psychoanalytic Perspectives” – and in this – I must say – this was 2017 – I listened before the pandemic – then she denounces – I would say it’s not too strong a word to say she speaks in a devaluing way about online therapy, and [she] considers that psychoanalysis is missing the opportunity to emphasize the presence [of] the being together in the physical space – and all of the issues that occur there, which I will shortly enumerate – and what I really want to emphasize here is that there are at least three objections that she has: she says, lookit, online, to make eye contact with another person, you have to look at the green dot [the “camera on” LED]. I’m looking at the green dot. And it looks like I’m looking directly at you but when I look at Arnon’s eyes, I’m actually looking away from the green dot. So it’s not like sometimes, if you take a step back, it’s not clear where you are looking, but in person there’s a kind of code presence which is makes also, I think, an interesting but perhaps questionable point – so I want to be an honest broker here and charitable – who makes the point what starts out as being better than nothing – key term: “better than nothing” – in it pandemic, you can’t meet in person. So it is so, as she acknowledges in a podcast in July 2020, at the height of the pandemic here in the States, you can’t go to visit in person. It doesn’t work – you can’t – it’s impossible – it’s forbidden – and when we get back at someday out of the pandemic, from which we are (arguably) emerging at this time, the problem is (she sees) is that there will be friction and resistance to meeting in person where our fullest Humanity, if you will, empathy in the sense of being present with another human being in the same physical space embodied in a physical way. And so being “better than nothing” becomes “better than everything,” “the best of all” in so many words. And, finally, well those are her two points, and she says psychoanalysis may be missing a great opportunity here to take a stand and then she talks about a number of issues including [incomplete thought] – but she doesn’t say, you know, how to use the couch online – the couch – lie back on the couch – free associate – I’ve seen people who lie back on the couch and immediately have a breakthrough. They think of things which they were aware of – that they have not really been unaware of them – but we’re just kind of shoved back in there you know in their consciousness -in their inner sanctum, and all the sudden lie back and relax a little, and, oh, my God, I remember this or that about parents, about friends, about current relationships that they had not been aware of; so it can be a powerful tool and how does that work online? It doesn’t come up in this particular article. I pause for breath. 

Arnon: The issue – is that the real psychoanalysis – is that typical discussion in psychoanalysis for many years – and now when Sherry Turkle says this is not psychoanalysis, speaking of online therapy – she is repeating and doing what many people did years ago before when the question was being on the couch or not being on the couch or sitting front face-to-face was considered not psychoanalysis

L: Somehow it was not echt – not genuine or authentic enough

Arnon: Yes, it was not the real classical Freudian in the day – and also the question should it be five times a week or three times a week – so psychoanalysis all the years is it the real thing or not the real thing and in this way I look on Sherry Turkle context can be partly understood – old psychoanalysis – is it true or false – in the 1950s when people said can you do psychoanalysis via the phone there were articles that said, you can do it but it is only supportive therapy – so what I am trying to say is the relationship camp was very much obsessed with the question was it the right thing as regular therapy or not regular therapy – so what I am saying is it is clearly different but it might be interestingly different – we might even find some advantage and learn a little bit what works in psychotherapy – for example, now when we are talking to one another, is it the content, my interpretation or is it my fault my visual appearance, which might be even bigger than what we you would seeing if you are in the end and I turn. You can see my face – my bird [beard] – my eyes – and like that so, and look. For example, I can do now this [Arnon zooms in and out with the camera] I’m going backward and then zooming 

Lou: Amazing – we are gong to zoom in – we are literally zooming – and so may I jumping in at this point, because you raised a number of questions – now this is now not Professor Turkle (Sherry) – this is Lou Agosta: We may usefully have a phenomenology of presence – of online presence – just as we have the philosopher Merleu-Ponty talking about embodiment and a number of researchers [on the subject]. There is need for that, because the image is different than the physical presence – sometimes – it’s – it’s just different – it’s not better – it’s not worse – it may be richer in some sense and then less dimensional in another sense – and so, you know. I mean I could see – she doesn’t call for this, but she might usefully do so. The second idea: take a transcript of an in-person psychotherapy session and take a transcript of an online session. What’s the delta [between the online and the in-person]? How could you tell? Now the Internet blows up as it did a moment ago in our conversation, then you know we’re online. If the patient comes in and says, well the traffic was horrible, then you know you’re on the ground. But remove those deltas – remove those considerations – I suggest that in most cases – but interesting ones may not be on the list of most cases – one could not tell the difference, because therapy is basically a conversation – it lives in language – but [unintelligible] what about those instances [that are] new forms of Freudian slips. An anecdote: I met a new patient I had a second meeting with the individual – we use some version of Zoom – she gets up – the device is moving around the apartment – she goes to the kitchen – goes to the oven and says “pardon me, I got something in the oven” I am thinking  – this is now would not be in the transcript – my thought would not be in the transcript – I’m thinking: Okay, this is amazing – this is practically like an enactment – an acting out – a Freudian slip – and I [think to myself] sometimes clients wonder whether their therapists know what they’re doing – it’s a valid question to be a little bit skeptical when we are consumers of psychotherapy services – does his or her therapist guy knows what he’s doing; and I said I’m thinking it’s a new relationship, but people are a little ambivalent about how they feel about their therapist and I say to her: “Do you perhaps think I am half baked?” She’s got something in the oven – she is baking a cake – it’s denied yet the thought is there – you can’t make this up – you can’t make stuff like this up – so that would be a delta – you get new forms of slips of the tongue, parapraxis, Fehlleistungs. Make no mistake, the transference is always the transfer, and so, this does not come up in Professor Turkle’s work. It might usefully do so, because the genie is out of the bottle.

Arnon: I think the example you gave is wonderful. Being a more CBT like therapist, I would not interpret as Half Baked or those things like but I would say: Wow. What a wonderful opportunity to see you are working – have hobbies – that you can cook – you see, what I am saying is the fact that the therapy is not now in our clinic but in in her room – her place, helps me know things about her self that I would not know – so instead of fighting this – and lets make the room exactly the same – let’s use this uniqueness that I can see their room and maybe they can see my room which is again interesting.

Lou:  It is significant, and I would tend to agree, and I claim that I was using it to explore the relationship and it’s true my countertransference was like can – one version of empathy is to be fully present with the other person – and I think Turkle – I mean, she doesn’t actually define it that way, but I think Sherry gets that – she appreciates this matter of copresence and really being with the other. I mean just like, you know, if this dialogue between you and me, Arnon, we go back a bunch of years – you know, if it were successful beyond all of our dreams, notwithstanding internet interruptions, we would succeed in making present a certain empathy. I mean, like I got you, man, I know, you know, we’ve been struggling with these issues for a lot of years, and now that’s a criteria of success: that we bring it forth – and we [are] doing it online. Hey! Hello! We are having [an online conversation] – we couldn’t do this on the ground. I mean you’re in Tel Aviv – we didn’t put this at the start of the video but you’re in Tel Aviv – I’m in Chicago Illinois – it would not be humanly possible otherwise  

Arnon: Right – right and that brings me again to my belief that we are reclaiming conversation – we are reclaiming conversation of [as] Internet dialogue and that it works very well – and let me tell you I am doing it for almost twenty years – and I prefer still to have the patient in my clinic – but I clearly suggest to our readers or audience not to go in either direction – not to say that technology will replace the human element and, on the other hand, let’s use technology. May I just add one more thing that we are currently struggling with – remember I want the therapy to continue only by the one-hour session. So the question comes, can we use technology not only by doing the one-hour session but by [for example] I am doing quite a lot of couples therapy – can the couple call me in the middle of a crisis – they are at home – 

Lou: That would be powerful – that could be power at the moment, the enemy (so to speak} – the issue is present at the moment 

Arnon: That would be one way to enlarge therapy – the second thing I am doing – according to the technique camps, not the relationship – I am using application, but the application is not trying to replace me but trying to resonate our interaction.  Suppose you are now my therapist and I was your patient and you will use this resonator application to resonate [saying to me] remembering how we felt when we had this problem – the idea: so we can use technology in many other ways not to fight it and not to say this is everything. 

Lou: Technology – surely, I mean this is a cliché, but perhaps hidden in plain view – technology can be a two-edged sword. Like any communication [device], it both connects and divines – I mean, we are relatively inexperienced with online therapy. I said earlier, dropping in the [conversation that the] genie is out of the bottle. In her in her podcast in July 2020 at the height of the pandemic, Sherry expressed concern that there would be a lot of friction, as she said, to going back to in person meeting just as there apparently is a lot of the people going back to the office and to their cubicles in person, and in some cases it’s essential and in some cases it’s definitely not required, and so how to tell the difference becomes the challenge. And it does seem like there is something – she makes the case, I mean, with which I must occasionally and in many ways align, that she makes the case that physical presence has something that is missing, and, yet. The genie is out of the bottle.  We’re not going, you know, we’re not going to get rid of our telephones, and if I want to send a message, I write you a letter, or, you know, I send you a message with a boy – a runner – run and deliver – people would do that – we’re not going to be able to go back, so the challenge then becomes how to be authentic online and interact with a phenomenology of online presence with new forms of, I mean, in the world of online humor I’ve been known to say occasionally two new clients, I mean, well what about the digital divide. You need a computer and zoom and a door that you can close for confidentiality, and privacy. I’ve had clients, sadly at the beginning of the pandemic that fell through the digital divide. This young man was living in the same bedroom with his younger brother. He was trying to do the conversation, walking around outside. It was really hard. It was really kind of not working the way it should. And so there are peopling now where are you may need to meet with them in person, because they don’t have the technology. And here in the States, it’s a much bigger country (bold statement of the obvious) than Israel; in some ways, more poverty. There are parts of this country, which are not digitally wired and connected; and so those issues become a matter of social justice as well. And so I have to call them Sherry doesn’t solve them either, but nevertheless she lines up and makes the case that it’s very important. So where are we? I want to – maybe since I’ve got The Conch Shell here, I will tie up two loose ends. I interrupted myself as I was talking about her Memoir. After she answers up for a little while at the Committee on Social Thought and she ends up writing a dissertation at MIT on the social psychology of French political psychoanalysis. She meets Jacque Lacan – so all of the controversial figures Professor Bettelheim, Jacque Lacan – the amazing thing – I really want to put this on the video – he [Lacan] treats her nicely – bad [boy, Lacan] – I mean, Why? This is so uncharacteristic. Why? He wants her to write nice things about him. He wants her to produce a enriching and ennobling and even perhaps – you know, given who he is – a flattering report and she doesn’t of course do that but he does come to Boston to visit at Cambridge, and to visit the colleagues, and the thing about Lacan – the only criticism – the only problem with Lacan – there’s only one problem, Jacque Lacan. He goes to dinner. He doesn’t wear a tie. He throws a conniption fit. It’s kind of an interpersonal disaster. Professor – Sherry not yet Professor Turkle has nothing to do with his bad behavior but it resonates in different ways, She goes on to publish that book I was waving around or about to wave around [on camera] in this version Psychoanalytic Politics [on camera] you see the cover [and a silhouette] of protesters of May 1968 and the Eiffel Tower there. She is not a Lacanist, but she is informed by the dynamics, and, you know, the prohibition creates the desire. I didn’t know I wanted to go online to do therapy until you told me I couldn’t.  Now if I have to explain the joke, it’s not funny.  That’s the best I can do. So that wraps up her memoire. There’s a lot more there, but those are some of the essential talking points. So I pause for breath. 

Arnon: It’s a nice way to finish with the more personal. May I bring up another personal [matter] – Sherry speaks so honestly about a Jewish home she grew up and her problematic father and she came to the same direction that I came to though I have a wonderful father, because he thought technology can help change the statues of the Jewish people. It can help solve the pandemia, the pandemic. It can help the human race. So my father really believed in technology, but not only in the technical aspects, but it’s a part of the human spirit that we can fix things. We can overcome problems, 

Lou: That is remarkable, because here you are growing up in a Kibbutz, which is kind of a collective environment. The parents are not dismissed, but moved to the side and here Sherry who gets a lot of attention, in some ways it’s almost impossible to get too much attention but she does and not always of the right kind in some instances, and the end result is this complicated relationship with technology for the things that it is powerful in doing and for its disadvantages and drawbacks as well advantage. So final thoughts as we are coming up on the back end of our conversation. And your personal anecdote is a final thought. Two thumbs up on the work she’s doing. We find that we take exception to the throwing online therapy and online psychoanalysis under the bus as we say here in the States. The problem with that – here is my final reflection – the problem with that is that it is getting crossed under the bus. There are a lot of people under the bus struggling so we want to make productive useful application of all of the means to combat human suffering. What all of these different modalities have in common – whether it’s CBT or biofeedback or group therapy or traditional dynamic therapy or rigorous Freudian therapy or self psychology – they’re not exactly the same – all of these are commitment and a stand against human suffering which is significant and ongoing that’s my thought. So I think Sherry stands with that. I think we have common ground there.

Arnon: Yeah, maybe she would join us in the next go around

Lou: Well, would you like to make an invitation? Make the formal invitation, because that occurred at the start of the conversation. 

Arnon:  Well, you probably would say it in a more American, polite way – but I would say: Sherry, I was trying to communicate with you, she know it, so I wrote to her, because we wrote a book – we did not mention it yet  – we wrote a book about online therapy with Haim Weinberg [editor] and you wrote a chapter – and I wanted to have her in the book – it was before she wrote the Empathy Diaries – and she wrote to me, I am so much into it [writing the memoire] that I cannot stop – and I pushed again – and being Israeli, I pushed, and she replied, “I appreciate it but no.” Maybe now she will be more open. 

Lou: There’s an invitation for further conversation. Thinking of the end: we acknowledge your empathy, Professor Turkle – Sherry. I acknowledge your empathy, Arnon, my colleague and friend. I acknowledge the empathy of the listeners to this conversation, because you’re listening creates the empathy in this conversation. We honor and thank and acknowledge you for that. Thank you very much. Signing off. 

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

Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 2): Individual Provider and Receiver (of Empathy)

Overcoming Individual resistance to empathy (provider)

Empathy is trending. As we engage with provider empathy, the pendulum has swung far enough for a backlash against empathy to be emerging. 

Empathy with negative emotions and suffering is difficult. From a purely selfish perspective, empathic data gathering about the negative experiences endured and survived by other persons can be, well, negative. Negative experiences such as loss, hostility, intense rage, sexual danger, sadness, sleep deprivation, fear, and so on, are not welcome by anyone even as a less intense vicarious experiences. One fears getting the full-blown experience, not merely vicariously experiencing a sample or trace. The would-be empathizer is at risk of being overwhelmed, inundated, or flooded by emotional upset. The person’s empathy is on the slippery slope of empathic distress; and the empathy is at risk of breakdown. 

The language is telling. If one is hit by a tidal wave, then one is going to be “under water.” Kick your feet, make swimming motions with the arms, and rise to the surface to try to catch your breath. While an empathic response is easier said than done, expressing the suffering of the survivor in a simple and factually accurate statement can open the way to containing the suffering and getting unstuck. Dial down empathic receptivity and dial up empathic interpretation and understanding. 

People committed to providing empathy to other people resist their own commitment to empathy for several reasons. As soon as a person makes a commitment—in this case, a commitment to practice empathy—then all the reasons why the commitment is a bad idea, unworkable, unreasonable, or just plain absurd, show up. There is no time. It is too expensive. No one is interested. What seemed like a good idea yesterday, now seems a lot more challenging and like a lot more work. Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no possibility of it. 

The would-be empathizer is vulnerable to a vicarious experience of the other person’s suffering. Indeed if one’s empathic data filter is not granular enough, one is at risk of being inundated by emotional contagion. This does not mean that the provider of empathy has to be a masochist, stuck on suffering. However, it does mean being vulnerable to a sample of the suffering. It does mean opening oneself up to a sample of the other person’s upsetting experience. It does mean being receptive to that which the other finds so upsetting, but doing so in a regulated and limited way. Hence, the need for training. 

The training consists in interrupting and accepting one’s own feelings and letting them be. Practice is required in order to increase one’s tolerance and learn to be with uncomfortable feelings. 

One key to forming a humane relationship with anyone who is upset: Vicariously getting a taste of the upset, experiencing vicariously the other’s fear or anger. Acknowledge the experience as valid. Accept the experience, not as good or fair, but as what one has indeed experienced. 

One celebrity academic claims that in empathy the better part of emotion is reducible to emotional contagion. What the world needs to practice is not empathy, but rational compassion. As if one had to choose between the two! The world needs expanded empathy and more compassion of all kinds.[i]

A vicarious experience is essential data as to what the other person is experiencing; but if one is distressed to the point of upset by the other’s upset, then one is not going to be able to make a difference. Paradoxically one is not going to be able to experience one’s experience due to being distracted by one’s own upset. One’s empathy has misfired, gone off the rails, failed. 

Empathy is in breakdown. One has to regroup. Take a time out. Acknowledge that one is human. One does not always get it right, but that does not mean that one is less committed to empathy or helping the other. It is worth repeating that the empathizer may expect to suffer, but not too much—just a little bit. 

The good news is that empathy, when properly implemented, serves as an antidote to burnout or “compassion fatigue.” Note the language here. Unregulated empathy supposedly results in “compassion fatigue.” However, this work has repeatedly distinguished empathy from compassion. 

Could it be that when one tries to be empathic and experiences compassion fatigue, then one is actually being compassionate instead of empathic? Consider the possibility. The language is a clue. Strictly speaking, one’s empathy is in breakdown. Instead of being empathic, one is being compassionate, and, in this case, the result is compassion fatigue without the quotation marks. It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue,” which is a nuance rarely noted by the advocates of “rational compassion.” 

No one is saying, do not be compassionate. Compassion has its time and place—as does empathy. We may usefully work to expand both; but we are saying do not confuse the two. Empathy is a method of data gathering about the experiences of the other person; compassion tells one what to do about it, based on one’s ethics and values. 

Most providers of empathy find that with a modest amount of training, they can adjust their empathic receptivity up or down to maintain their own emotional equilibrium. In the face of a series of sequential samples of suffering, the empathic person is able to maintain his emotional equilibrium thanks to a properly adjusted empathic receptivity. No one is saying that the other’s suffering or pain should be minimized in any way or invalidated. One is saying that, with practice, regulating empathy becomes a best practice. 

However, the good news is sometimes also the less good news. 

The other person’s suffering reminds one of one’s own suffering. 

The other person’s anger reminds one of one’s own anger. 

The other’s failures evoke one’s own setbacks. 

The other’s self-defeating behavior is plainly evident to any third party, but one’s own self-defeating behavior seems to continue with regularity in tripping up oneself. 

Rarely does a person say, “I want to be empathic in order to confront my own personal demons.” Rarely does one say it, but that is what is needed. That is the work of expanding one’s empathy. As in the fairy tale, one must spend three nights in the haunted castle, fighting the ghosts of one’s past and confronting the illusive specter of one’s blind spots. 

Anxiety, depression, fragmentation, and the dehumanization dwelling in the dark side of human nature loom large before discovering the buried treasure of one’s own emotional resources in the face of upsets.

The thinking and practices that created empathy breakdowns are insufficient to overcome them. The thinking and practices that created resistances to empathy are insufficient to transform them. To get one’s power back in the face of resistance to empathy, something extra is required. 

Expanding one’s empathy in the face of one’s own resistance to empathy requires something extra. Expanding empathy requires expanding authenticity, so the person who would practice empathy has to confront and clean up his own emotional contagion, conformity, projection, egocentrism, devaluing judgments and opinions, and the tendency of communications to get lost in translation. This clean up requires acting to repair disruptions in relatedness and repairing misunderstandings and miscommunications with other people by acknowledging one’s own contribution to the breakdown. It requires picking up the phone or requesting a meeting. It requires showing up, engaging, and acknowledging how one acted to cause the upset or breakdown. 

Instead of emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and mistranslation, one enters the empathic cycle, engaging with openness towards the other person in receptivity, understanding of possibilities, taking ownership of one’s meaning making so that the other person is left free to be self-expressed, and responding in such a way that the other person is left whole and complete. 

This means accepting the consequences of one’s deeds and mis-deeds. That is the first step—and every step—in recovering one’s power in relation to empathy. One might not get what one wants. However, what one is going to get is unstuck—and the freedom to be empathic in relationships going forward. 

Overcoming individual resistance to empathy (recipient)

Everyone wants to get empathy, don’t they? Speaking of a recipient’s resistance to empathy sounds like resisting rainbows and colored balloons. What’s not to like? Empathy is what everyone really wants, isn’t it? Well, not always. Resistance to empathy—that it exists—is the basic empathy lesson of this chapter. 

Emotional closeness leaves a person vulnerable to disappointment. The would-be recipient of empathy is ambivalent and vulnerable about being intimate with the other person, inhibiting the recipient’s empathic relatedness. The result is resistance to empathy. 

People want approval from other people. People want approval for their opinions and behavior. People want agreement. Life is definitely easier, at least in the short run, if one is surrounded by people who agree with one rather than disagree. 

People especially want agreement when they have something to be disagreeable about. They want agreement when they have a complaint. However, empathy does not lead off with approval and agreement. 

Empathy leads off by being quiet and listening. In the face of chronic complaints and self-defeating behavior, being empathic often takes an open and inquiring stance that the other person may usefully take a look at any responsibility or potential blind spots he may be holding onto as the source of the complaint. It seems like “mission impossible,” since the blind spot is precisely that which, by definition, one does not know and that to which one can get access only through sustained self-inquiry. Doing the hard work of undertaking an inquiry into one’s own issues is, well, hard work. That results in resistance to empathy. 

Resistant or not, people want to be understood. People want to be gotten for who they authentically are. People want other people to know how they have struggled to succeed and overcome adversity. 

Yet, in hoping to be understood for who they really are, people are asking, not so much for agreement as for empathy. 

People assert that they want to be understood; yet they do not want to be understood too well. 

People do not want to take too close a look at how they have contributed to their own struggle and effort. People do not want to face directly how they have contributed in self-defeating ways to their own frustration and stuckness about which they so loudly complain. 

People want the recognition of their humanity that comes with empathy; but not the unmasking of their own blind spots, which requires getting out of their comfort zone. 

Let’s face it. People can be difficult. People are disagreeable. People are contrary. People are ornery. People are rude and discourteous. People push and shove. People often forget to honor their agreements. People lie. People are overly aggressive. People are overly sexed. People are under-sexed. People smell bad. Is it any wonder that people do not want to get close to other people? Is it any surprise that people develop resistance to being empathic towards other people? 

This is a case of you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. People, that is. Yet there is no such thing as a person in isolation. A person by himself is not a survivable entity. That is true of newborn babies. That is true of children of tender age, who require years of guidance and education. Likewise, that is true of adults, though in more nuanced ways. 

The “I” is a part of the “we,” and the “we” a part of the “I”

Early prehistoric humans needed a companion to tend the campfire and stand guard against predators (or hostile neighbors) while the other(s) rested. The basic male and female pair was an inseparable requirement for procreative success. 

Propagating the species to build a community against the ravages of infant mortality was a priority requiring skills to cooperate with one another socially. For most of recorded history (and before) children were the equivalent of a pension plan for aging parents; and in many parts of the world today that continues to be the case. 

Domination and control of individuals in community based on physical strength and violence coexisted alongside (and contended against) forms of cooperation, leadership, and community-building based on the skillful use of language and symbols to exercise power based on motivation, persuasion, inspiration, inclusion, and enlightened self-interest. 

The point is not to tell a “just so” story about the origins of civilization, but rather to acknowledge that, not only is the individual a part of the community, the community is also a part of the individual. This bears repeating. The “I” does not only belong to the “we”; but the “we” is a part of the “I.” We carry within ourselves a readiness for community, a readiness for relatedness, a sense of inclusion in community; and if there is no one else to talk to, we talk to ourselves. 

The empathy lesson? Empathy is the foundation of relatedness, and resistance to empathy is resistance to relatedness. People are born into “relatedness.” Empathy is about participation with others. Empathy is about relatedness with other people and who these others authentically are in their strengths and weaknesses, in their possibilities and limitations. Even when a person is a hermit, all alone, he is alone in such a way that his aloneness depends on the basic condition of his being a creature designed for relatedness. Being unrelated is a privative form of relatedness; and being alone is a deficient form of relatedness. Paradoxically, nonrelatedness becomes a way of relating for some. 

Given that resistance to empathy on the part of the would-be recipient of empathy is pervasive, what is the recommendation? Ask yourself: What is coming between myself and the other person who is offering empathy? Perhaps fear of being misunderstood is a factor. Fear of being let down is another factor. Fear of being vulnerable gets in the way. Fear of disappointment is a consideration. 

What do all these factors have in common? Fear. Fear is front and center. However, there is something else further back behind the fear. Less obvious but highly significant. What would a person have to give up in order to be receptive to the gracious and generous listening being offered? Behind the fear is attachment—attachment to suffering.

Suffering is sticky

For people who are survivors, whether of the college of hard knocks or significant trauma, allowing themselves to experience another’s empathy takes something extra. Many people who fall short of a clinical label of “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) have an area in their lives in which they are engaged with their suffering in an intimate way. You know the saying: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer”? So it is also with suffering. In order to survive suffering, many people have decided to keep it close to them. They are attached to it. Overly attached? One thing is for sure. Suffering is sticky.[ii] Letting go of the suffering through the soothing experience of empathy seems like a risky proposition to people who feel fragile and vulnerable.

Consider PTSD. (We define our terms.) In an attempt to master the consequences of the life threatening experience of trauma, the organism (the human mind/body) keeps the fear, anxiety, and pain split off from being experienced as one’s own. Yes, one was present when the assault happened, the violence was perpetrated, or the train wreck occurred. 

Yet in another sense, one was not present. One was not there, at least not as a conscious being. In being overwhelmed in the moment, one immediately took oneself out of the experience as an immediate reaction and survival mechanism. The traumatic experience remains unintegrated with one’s other life experiences, spinning in a tight circle of repetition. 

The circle of repetition is split off from the person’s awareness and everyday life, remaining isolated—“sequestered” is the technical term for it.[iii] Suffering lives. The pain is real. Suffering itself becomes a kind of “comfort zone,” but only in the limited sense that it is isolated and separated from the awareness of the person trying to live his life. 

This in no way diminishes the struggle or suffering of the survivor. Yet letting go of the suffering through the soothing balm of empathy shows up like a risky encounter with the unknown. For most people, the unknown itself is fear inspiring. The unknown is as fear inspiring as the suffering itself. 

One keeps coming back to the suffering in the hope that it might be magically shifted. One keeps coming back to it like an exposed nerve in a toothache. Yes, it still hurts—ouch! The suffering starts to dominate one’s whole life, and one builds one’s life around the suffering, trying to manage and contain the uncontainable. One says, “I know my own dear little suffering up close, and it is a comfort to me in its own way—it gives me all these secondary gains—even though the impact and cost is staggering in the long term—yet I cannot let it go.” 

We cycle back to empathy and its many dimensions in the context of suffering as an uncomfortable comfort zone. 

How to be empathically responsive to the struggling individual and his “dear little suffering” requires an empathic listening of remarkable finesse and timeliness. 

Empathy can help people get out of their comfort zone, in this case a place of suffering, in a safe and liberating way. When empathy gets an opening, empathy shrinks the trauma the way interferon is supposed to shrink tumors. Empathy sooths the accompanying suffering and reduces the stress. 

The survivor is able to let go of the attachment to suffering, and engage with new possibilities. No guarantee exists that the outcome of the new possibilities will be favorable; many risks await; but the individual is no longer stuck. 

In summary, we have engaged with resistance to empathy from three perspectives. We have explored overcoming resistance to empathy in the organization, in the individual providing empathy, and in the individual receiving empathy. In each case the empathy training consists in driving out obstacles to empathy, reducing or eliminating the resistance, so empathy can spontaneously grow and develop. 

The organization drives out empathy by enforcing conformity to an extensive and contradictory set of rules, whose complexity is such that at any give time, the individual is technically (though unwittingly) in violation of one of them.

Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s career; and humor is closely related to empathy; so humor becomes a powerful way of regulating empathy, expanding and contracting empathy in such challenging organizational contexts. Humor is a powerful tool against the arrogance of authoritarian domination. Both empathy and humor require crossing the boundary between self and other with integrity and respect, but humor offers additional opportunities for questioning the status quo, speaking truth to power, and creating the stress, suddenly relaxed by laughter, caused by expressing what’s so.

Empathy has a key role to play in organizations in reducing conflict, overcoming “stuckness,” eliminating self-defeating behavior, building teams, fostering innovation, developing leadership, and enhancing productivity. The empathy lesson is to use humor (and empathy) to undercut resistance to empathy in the organization. The lesson is that empathy is a source of creating possibilities, overcoming conformity through innovation, and leading from a future of possibilities. 

Resistance to empathy on the part of those who provide empathy shows up as “compassion fatigue” and burnout. The word is a clue: compassion, not empathy, causes “compassion fatigue.” So much compassion, so little empathy. I hasten to repeat that the world needs both more compassion and more empathy. Peer group dynamics, collegial support, and self-care are required to recharge the emotional resources of those routinely providing empathy to others. 

Regular self-care, including exercise, nutrition, quality time with family/friends, is on the critical path to survival and flourishing, managing the risk of experiencing empathic distress. 

This makes the case for self-care and self-monitoring on the part of professionals of all kinds and first responders in health care, education, sales, leadership, public safety, customer service, and so on, whose empathy is a significant part of their role. Professionals take breaks and are on top of their empathy game; amateurs try to be empathic all the time (whatever that would mean), experience empathic distress, make it mean they lack empathy, and quit. Those who do not take care of themselves, then blaming empathy when they get burned out, are committing a kind of malpractice of empathic engagement (in the literal, not pejorative sense of the word). Like a helicopter, empathy is powerful and complex, so it requires regularly scheduled maintenance lest something go wrong at an inconvenient time.

For those individuals who want empathy or think that they want empathy, but then change their minds, resistance to empathy confronts readiness for empathy. Some people simply would rather not be understood. For them, being understood has resulted in bad outcomes. They have been manipulated, used, even abused. 

In such cases, the would-be empathizer has to “dial down” empathic receptivity, in which the communication of affect looms large, and “tune up” empathic interpretation, in which one cognitively processes what it might be like to take the other’s point of view. Once a person feels safe, the person will be willing to risk exposing and exploring the vulnerabilities that got the person stuck in the first place and need working through to get the person moving again into a flourishing future of possibilities. 

In conclusion, empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? A lot. People can be difficult—very difficult—why should empathizing with them be easy? Yet most of the things that are cited as reasons for criticizing and dismissing empathy—emotional contagion, projection, misinterpretation, gossip, messages lost in translation and devaluing language—are actually breakdowns of empathy. With practice and training, one’s empathy expands to shift breakdowns in empathy to breakthroughs in understanding, possibilities of flourishing, enhanced humanity, relatedness, and building community.


[i] Empathy is now a major publishing event. There is a wave of books on empathy—popular, scientific, political, and scholarly. For example, Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy explores empathy between humans and higher animals; J.D. Trout’s The Empathy Gap considers empathy and social justice from the perspective of Ignatian Humanism; Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, 800 pages long in hardcover (don’t drop it on your foot!) channels Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of a global consciousness, now including the politics of empathy; Jean Decety’s Social Neuroscience establishes correlations between sensations, affects, and emotions using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI) as a kind of x-ray for the soul, exploring the relation between empathy and psychopathy (with his colleague Kent Kiehl); Simon Baron-Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy considers the role of empathy in cruelty and disorders of empathy such as psychopathy and autism. Thomas Farrow’s (ed.) Empathy in Mental Illness drills down scientifically on the disorders of empathy in all their profound differences. See also: Susan Lanzoni, Empathy: A History (Yale 2018); any collectioin on social neuroscience by Jean Decety; William R.Miller, Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding (WIPF and Stock, 2018); Cris Beam, I feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy (Houghton Mifflin, 2018); Jodi Halpern, From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice, (Oxford, 2001); David Howe, Empathy: What It Is and Why It Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Leslie Jamisom, The Empathy Exams (Essays) (Graywolf, 2014); Thomas Kohut, Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past (Routledge 2021).

[ii] I discuss this proposition in detail in Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge (Taylor and Francis): 53, 55, 117, 190.

[iii] Bessel van der Kolk. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books.

Resistance to Empathy and How to Overcome it (Part 1: Organizational Resistance to Empathy)

You don’t need an expert to practice empathy

Every parent, teacher, doctor, social worker, sales person, person with customers, first responder, consultant, neighbor, or taxi driver already knows a lot about empathy. They would not be successful, much less survive, if they did not practice empathy. You may need a license to be a barber and cut hair. However, outside totalitarian state, no one can require that you have a license to do what comes spontaneously to the vast majority of human beings—be empathic. However, an expert can be helpful in clarifying distinctions, providing tips and techniques, and modeling the empathy you want to get or apply and expand.

Parents are naturally empathic towards their children; teachers, towards their students; medical doctors, towards their patients; business people, towards their customers, consultants towards their clients, and so on. Even if a person is clumsy and does not get empathy quite right, people can’t stop doing it. Yes, that’s right—people can’t stop being empathic; but then fear stops them—fear of experiencing vicariously another person’s pain, struggle, conflict, or suffering—and a breakdown occurs in their empathy. There must be something wrong here! Blame starts flying around. They blame themselves. They blame the other person. They blame empathy.

Even if doctors are trained to “tune down” their spontaneous empathy until it becomes “detached concern”—and good reasons exist for doing that at times—empathy naturally breaks through, and they often relate authentically to their patients as one human being to another in spite of themselves.[i]

The really useful thing is that in learning to contract one’s empathy, one is also learning expand it, because one is learning to regulate and manage empathy. Contracting one’s empathy also means being able to expand it. “Dialing down” empathy also means being able to “dial up” empathy. 

“Dialing down” empathy does not mean “stop listening,” “be unkind,” “blame,” “make wrong,” “reject,” “be hostile,” “use devaluing speech,” or “feign thoughtlessness.” Such a response would be absurd. 

There is a sense in which a feeling may be socially appropriate or inappropriate—for example to laugh at a funeral when nothing is funny—feelings are valid in themselves in that they always are what they are. 

A feeling may be an inarticulate judgment—fear being the judgment that one should run from danger—especially if a mountain lion is coming around the bend. The fear is an absolute given in the moment. 

One may wish that one felt differently than one does in fact feel in the moment; but that one feels a certain way is an absolute given. 

The best way to turn fear into an out-an-out panic attack is to say to oneself: “This (fear) should not be!” But of course it is, so that means what? One has lost control. Panic! 

The recommendation? Accepting the feelings as what’s so does not make an unpleasant feeling any easier to bear, but it takes away its power, drains the upset out of it, and gives one space to be in equilibrium with oneself again. Thus, radical acceptance of the feeling is an effective method of “dialing down” one’s empathy.

Most people are naturally empathic, but they lack practice. They set about practicing empathy, but are clumsy. Or they had a bad experience in relation to their own empathy or someone else’s (lack of) empathy. They develop a “flinch reflex” when it comes to practicing empathy. For such individuals, resistance to empathy replaces their spontaneous empathy. Most people use empathy every day, and do not need an expert to tell them what it is. Olympic athletes get a coach, but it is not because they are not good at what they do. They are good at what they do; and are striving to get to the next level of excellence. Few people claim to be really good at empathizing. Those persons who are practiced in empathy can be useful coaches in helping one to clarify definitions, engage the hard cases, and distinguish how to transform breakdowns of empathy into breakthroughs that make a difference. 

Using empathy—practicing empathy—sometimes means being used by empathy. Yes, empathy uses us. 

“Being used by empathy” means that the person has trained in being empathic, so that the person has a level of mastery that allows the person to be empathic (or not) without thinking too much about it. Empathy has become practiced, habitual, and automatic. 

There’s what we know we know about empathy. There’s what we know we do not know about empathy and hope to find out. Where did the word come from? What are mirror neurons anyway? How does one expand one’s empathy? 

Finally, there is what we do not even know we do not know about empathy. The third area is where this book and its training operates—what we do not even know we do not know: our blind spots about empathy; our vulnerability, shame, and cynicism in relating to others; and our resistance to empathy.

Empathy requires that one get “up close and personal” with other people. Other people can be notoriously difficult, irritable, dishonest, manipulative, apathetic, too pushy, or contrary. Other people resist being on the receiving end of empathy, because being understood makes them feel vulnerable.

If someone understands me, really understands me, then he can use what he understands about me to take advantage of me. Now an authentically empathic person would not do that, but the world is not known for being filled with authentically empathic people. 

Well-intentioned persons sometimes simply misunderstand what empathy is and are resisting something else that they happen to call “empathy.” They mistake the breakdown of empathy in emotional contagion, conformity, projection, distortion, mind reading, or lack of responsiveness, for empathy proper, and throw out the baby with the proverbial bath water. The empathy lesson in confronting resistance to empathy is direct: remove the resistance to empathy, and empathy comes forth, develops, and blossoms. Empathy expands. 

Overcome resistance to empathy: empathy expands

Another person’s blind spots are easy to see, but one struggles to catch a glimpse of one’s own. Thus, one of my own blind spots about empathy comes into view, albeit in my peripheral vision. When I do not get my way, I have the thought that the other person (or the world) is unempathic. This is of course absurd and self-serving, though, heaven knows, empathy is unevenly distributed in the world. The empathy lesson? Wherever there is empathy, can narcissism be far away? (No.) Thus, I clean up the thought—give it up, distinguish it as not helpful, let it go. But no matter how may times I give it up, the next time I am frustrated, it seems like there is that thought again, coming into view like the grin on the Cheshire cat. Only now it becomes an inside joke, and a challenge to earn my empathic wings everyday.

This lesson is easy to express, hard to do. The devil is in the details. One has to descend into the hell of one’s empathy breakdowns in order to emerge from the refiner’s fire of self-inquiry with renewed commitment to empathy, relatedness, and community. This sounds too hard. No one said it would be easy.

How to start? One begins by introspecting. Acknowledging one’s own lack of integrity and inauthenticity in the matter of empathy. Like the labors of the mythical hero Hercules, there is a whole lot of shoveling of manure to be performed. 

Cleaning up broken interpersonal relationships is on the agenda. Repairing integrity outages and inauthenticities is in order. Empathy training includes the requirement to go out into the world of one’s relations with other persons and engage and practice. 

The very idea of resistance to empathy inspires resistance. The idea of resistance to empathy requires motivation. 

What could that even be? Resistance to empathy seems to make no sense. It sounds like resisting motherhood, puppies, or apple pie. 

The idea that some people would resist empathy is surprising. Very surprising. What’s not to like about empathy? A great deal it seems. Even within this way of talking, appearances can be deceptive. Puppies make a mess on the new carpet. Apple pie is delicious, but it makes one fat. Mothers are wonderful people. The human race owes its existence to those who are mothers both individually and as a community; but motherhood is a damn tough job, not withstanding its many rewards. Mothers require a lot of support. Volunteers? 

In general, receiving empathy is like getting a gift; providing empathy requires effort. Getting empathy is a benefit. Providing empathy requires listening to the other person, attending to one’s introspective reaction to the other person, managing the increase in tension, living with the uncertainty of being open to the other person, being vulnerable, and risking misunderstanding. This is why providing empathy inspires resistance. It requires work. 

On the other hand, receiving empathy from a committed listener has been compared to sinking back into a warm bath. It is relaxing. It reduces stress. It is restorative of one’s emotional equilibrium. However, even in a one-on-one conversation, receiving empathy sometimes feels like being publicly acknowledged and recognized at a banquet. It has its uncomfortable side. 

It is not always easy to be explicitly acknowledged and recognized for one’s contribution. One may feel ambivalent about being exposed and vulnerable. So even receiving empathy, though properly regarded as a benefit, has its conditions and qualifications; and some people are made painfully self-conscious by being acknowledged.

Whether one is giving empathy or receiving it, empathy has its dark side. If one is committed to giving empathy—being empathic—one is vulnerable to burnout, empathic distress, or “compassion fatigue.” If one is on the receiving end of empathic receptivity, though a restorative experience, one is still exposed in one’s potential weaknesses and limitations. One feels vulnerable to misunderstanding by the other person, to whom one has exposed oneself emotionally.

At a deeper level, resistance to empathy lives in our individual and collective blind spots about our dear self. Where there is empathy, can narcissism be far away? “Narcissism” is a way of relating to oneself. The mythical Narcissus was an attractive young man. He was so enamored of his own reflection in the mirror-like surface of the pond—this was before the invention of “selfies”—that he did not see the dangers of his surroundings. In different versions of the myth, Narcissus either fell into the water, drowning in his own image of himself, or he was consumed—metaphorically eaten—by the lion of his narcissistic desires, who also frequented the watering hole. 

The empathy lesson of the myth of Narcissus? Empathy requires de-emphasizing “the dear self.” Even for someone committed to giving empathy such a de-emphasis of self-love is not automatic. When the empathy being delivered includes recognition, people struggling with self-esteem issues—either too much or too little—find it challenging just to accept the acknowledgement. “Naw, it wasn’t nothing—just doin’ my job.” It is not easy to be acknowledged, and therein lies resistance to empathy, too. Though receiving empathy feels good, it is not easy to open up to another person and acknowledge one’s personal issues, sufferings, sources of shame, or struggles.

In every instance of resistance to empathy, the empathy lesson consists in identifying, engaging, reducing, managing, or eliminating, the resistance to empathy by interpreting the resistance; driving out cynicism, shame, guilt (and so on); saying what is missing the presence of which would make a difference (such as respect for boundaries or contribution); and being open to the possibility—of expanded empathy. 

When the resistance is reduced, empathy has space to expand, which it does so spontaneously as well as through providing explicit practices, tactics, strategies, and training.

The qualities that make organizations successful are not always the qualities that enhance their empathy. I am so bold as to assert this generalization applies whether the institution is a tax paying public one, listed on the stock exchange, or a nonprofit, community organization. Whether the corporate mission is to deliver value in manufacturing automobiles or to serve the community by collecting and distributing whole human blood to sick people, the ultimate truth is: no money, no mission.

Yet to say that the purpose of one’s business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is to keep on breathing. Well, okay. The two are closely related. Definitely, don’t stop breathing. But somehow “don’t stop breathing” is not very useful as life guidance; and, likewise, “make money” is not a useful business strategy.

The ongoing process of living—or doing business—should not be confused with the purpose, vision, strategy, and meaning of the activity in the direction of excellence, whether in business or the community.

In most successful organizations, expanding revenue is a result of a successful strategy—applications and implementations that deliver value—and satisfy the demands of the customers, employees, and stakeholders. The expanded revenue is the effect of getting the vision and implementation just right, not the cause of it.

Successful enterprises of all kinds have to handle navigating an intricate, complex network of rules assigned by government, law enforcement, taxing authorities, and non-governmental special interest groups. Business and nonprofit enterprises must contend with competing organizations that assert and authentically believe that they can provide the product or service at lower cost or higher quality. Within the enterprise itself, the organization must balance the personalities of the leaders, individual contributors (workers), and stake-holders, who make up the organization.

An inherent challenge exists in building organizations and crafting an administrative structure that actually functions; and then getting the administrative structure—the bureaucracy—to act in a responsive and balanced way to customers, employees, and stake-holders.

Economies of scale that require fitting people into functions that can be substituted for one another to increase efficiency rarely expand empathy, because empathy consists in recognizing differences in individual contributions.

Hear me say it, and not for the last time: the things that make us good at business, including the corporate transformation of American medicine and education, do not always expand our empathy. What to do about it? The battle is joined. The recommendation?

Let your customers, constituents, or stake-holders train you in empathy: Realize that if you do not respond empathically, the customers are just going to go quietly to the competitor that does. Empathy is good for business. If the customer has a complaint that he is having trouble expressing, then use one’s listening skills to get to the bottom of things.

If the customer expresses anger, know that empathy is one of the best methods, bar none, of deescalating conflict and soothing anger. “Gee, it really does sound like you have not been well treated. Let’s see what we can do to make things better” [or words to that effect].

Still, I do not know of a single organization that as of the date of publication of this book, when making decisions, serving customers, documenting complaints, closing sales, managing conflicts of interest, asks: “What would the empathic response be?”

To be sure, aspects of the empathic response are included in such common factors as “be respectful to customers,” “be helpful to clients,” “keep one’s agreements,” “strive to deliver value.” Empathy is already in the mix, and many customers are willing to pay a premium for empathic services even if they do not use the word “empathy.”

The astute businessperson, committed to expanding the enterprise, knows that “if you want to gather honey, do not knock over the bees’ nest.” This is distinct from empathy, but not by much. Thus, the task is to nurture the seeds of empathy already present in abundance, but lying in hiding in cynicism and denial, while making the case that smart organizations build and deliver value empathically.

The legendary Marshall Field, one of the inventors of the department store, on which the sun is now setting, and a kinder, gentler robber baron of capitalism, is famously quoted as saying, “Give the lady what she wants.” It made Field rich, and his workers well off. It is perhaps a sign of the times that Field’s was purchased by Macy’s some years ago, which has struggles of its own in a world in which retail, having been “Amazoned,” is not what it used to be. So the tenuousness of the market value of empathy can be measured by the mark down of the once storied Field’s Enterprises in the face of Internet shopping.

An alternative redescription of the fire sale of Marshall Field’s flagship stores is that individualized, personalized, customized one-on-one service has moved to the ultimate free market, the Internet, once again, disintermediating the disintermediators. I would not rule out expanded empathy in online cyberspace, but, even allowing for the convenience of shopping naked, it is a work in progress.

Even in mild and efficient bureaucracies, people misuse organizational rules and paper work to create resistance to empathy. Passing the buck, “Not my job,” “I’ll have to get back to you,” “We received no such request,” “I don’t know, and I can’t tell you when,” are common responses. Bureaucrats (which used to mean “office worker,” but is now a devaluing term) address such pseudo-answers not only to customers, but also to their coworkers and managers.

Resistance to empathy uses organizational rules and regulations to build protective walls, instead of teamwork. Without concern for the other person, bureaucracy unwittingly creates obstacles that prevent workers from being present with one another.

Mutually implementing and contributing to agreements with the organization and one another is not a priority. Perpetuating the bureaucracy is. Managing permissions and gaming the system occur to avoid work, rework, and overwork. The threat of uncompensated overtime and overwork consumes the energy required to get the job done.

People automatically and unwittingly fall into resistance to empathy, exploiting the tendency to be territorial.

The organization itself can show up as the unempathic authority figure—like the unempathic parent, who leaves the child feeling devalued, depressed, and de-energized. In response, an individual pushes back against the organization and its rules, disagreeing and speaking truth to power.

Rarely does the organization respond empathically to the individual, but rather urges the individual to conform. The individual asks for an accommodation. “Power” exhorts the individual to comply. “Power” says, “I did not make up the rules—I just enforce them.”

The individual states that the organization exists to serve the stake-holders, not to perpetuate its own rule-making. But rule-making has a way of becoming habit forming, if not addictive. Whenever a problem, issue, or breakdown occurs, the tendency is to try to formulate a rule to cover the new case. If the individual continues for any amount of time in a state of non-compliance, then “power” tends to experience a loss of authority, which is deeply threatening and unacceptable to “power.” Power escalates efforts to force compliance. Power imposes sanctions, increasing the cost to the individual. Empathy struggles to make a difference and be heard.

Compliance is definitely trending. This is the age of compliance. And there is nothing wrong with compliance as such. Stop on red; go on green. Yet sometimes so many “shoulds” exist that doing one’s job can end up on a slope of diminishing returns. Filling out the required paperwork takes an increasing percentage of the workday.

For example, some people train to become nurses because they care about other people, and they want to take care of them and their health. However, when virtually every patient encounter has to be documented to satisfy compliance regulations, then an eight-hour workday includes hours of electronic documentation. Many nurses are saying, “This is not what I signed up for.” Engagement—a synonym for empathic nursing encounters—struggles for space to make a difference.

“Compliance” includes conforming to acceptable boundaries and limits. No one is saying break the rules. No one is saying disregard boundaries. Rather one is saying relate to rules and boundaries empathically. But what does that mean? Even if the light is green, look both ways for emergency equipment or an inattentive driver running the light. Don’t be dead right. And as applied to empathy?

Empathy is about traversing boundaries between individuals. But these include not only boundaries between the self and the other, but boundaries between those in a position of authority and subordinates, between insiders and outsiders in communities, and between those who are insiders and those who feel left out—or are actually marginalized and have become invisible.

Humor and empathy versus cynicism

Cynicism and denial are the enemies of empathy. The empathy lessons are simple: Empathy up, cynicism down. Humor up, empathy up. Yet in the face of life’s challenges, setbacks, and struggles to survive, everyone gets cynical on a bad day.

Ground zero of cynicism and humor is Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoon. It is wickedly funny, because it expresses more than a grain of truth about dysfunctional, anti-empathic organizations.

In one classic example, the pointy-haired boss says that from now on the organization will assign job functions based on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test (MBPT). For those readers who may not know, the MBPT is the test that distinguishes introversion and extroversion, thinking and feeling, and related categories. The boss continues: “For those of you who do not have a personality, one will be assigned by the human resources department.”[ii] I must say that I am deeply ashamed of myself—I can’t stop laughing.

In humor, stress and psychological tension are created by violating a standard—saying people in corporate cubicles have no personality—and then the stress is released in laughter by the mechanism of the joke such as a pun, double meaning, or violation of expectations.

Humor is closely related to empathy in that both humor and empathy cross a boundary between the self and the other. However, unlike empathy, in which the boundary crossing occurs respectfully, with acknowledgement of the other person’s contribution or struggle, and with recognition of humanity, in humor the boundary between self and other is crossed with aggression, put down, or (in other cases) sexuality. The rule? The more objectionable the joke is, the funnier it is. The put down, “If you do not have a personality, one will be assigned by HR” is indeed wickedly funny; but it is also deeply debunking of the corporate world (and shaming of the individual), in which people come to feel like a gear in an inhuman mechanism.

So empathy for the long suffering inhabitants of corporate cubicles, whose personalities are at risk of being erased, does come to the surface after all. The laughter largely dissolves the cynicism. It is a commonplace in the organizational world that people function as replaceable cogs in a well-oiled machine. Therefore, the cartoon is an example of what not to do. Cynicism and shame drive out empathy; and, more importantly, driving out cynicism and shame create a space into which empathy stands a chance and can expand spontaneously.

How then does one drive out cynicism, shame, denial, and so on? The short answer is by calling it out, acknowledging it, interpreting it, and offering an alternative point of view. Not “alternative facts,” which have come to mean “spin” and “deception”; but an alternative perspective. It is now cynicism versus empathy in the organization.

For example: “Given the challenges we are facing, it is easy to become cynical. However, I have an alternative point of view. If we adhere to our commitments, then the way forward is clear. Not easy, but clear. We have to … remember who we authentically are, serve the customer, be inclusive, expand the community, be guided by our empathy (and so on). We have to live up to our commitment that everyone who comes in contact with the organization, even if we cannot completely solve their problem, is left whole and complete, treated with dignity and respect (and empathy).”

In the face of pervasive cynicism, it takes courage for a person to responds empathically. Such a person may be perceived as a threat to the prevailing, default attitude of “I won’t call you on your lack of authenticity if you don’t call me on mine.” Such a committed person is at risk in standing out from the crowd; but such a person just might provide the leadership, gather the power to make a difference, get the job done with grace and ease under pressure—and get a promotion.

One does not even have to stop being cynical, since it is so pervasive, but one has to adhere to one’s commitment to making a contribution, work to make a positive difference, and deliver value on one’s agreements.

Cynicism is shown up for what it is: taking the easy way out. The practice of empathy is hard work.

It is not only the executive suite, but also the front and back office and every part of the supply chain in between that are staffed by harried people pushed down into survival mode by a cruel gig economy where empathy is not a priority. Of course, empathy gets paid lip service. Please pardon the double negative—one dare not not pay empathy lip service.

However, all-too-often, empathy is too messy. It is too complex. We are not even sure what empathy would mean in an organizational context. We need results now. Suck it up. Get over it. Conform! Nor is there anything wrong with conforming as such. Submit your expense report on time. Even the customer wants to conform, if only he could get the product to function as designed. It is just that empathy is too time consuming, which means—it is too costly.

Yet never was empathy more important than when it seems there is no time for it. Positively expressed, as with most forms of resistance, the method of overcoming it is to call it out and interpret it. Once visible and explicit, it is less formidable.

The empathy of cross-functional teams, managing by walking around, making a contribution, building the bigger team, being inclusive of all the stake-holders, communicating goals and connecting the dots between individual accomplishments and the objectives of the entire organization—these create a clearing in which empathy shows up and makes a profound contribution to the success of the organization.

In addition, one’s employer is not one’s parent. Remember the sign in the common kitchen that says “Your mother does not work here—clean up your dirty dishes!”? Of course your mom told you that, too, and she did “work here” at home, and it still hasn’t snuck in.

Notwithstanding the rich comic possibilities, one’s employer and its leaders do indeed “work here.” Leaders provide powerful examples to whom we look for inspiration. This must give one pause about the state of leadership today. Just as children have to get empathy from their parents before they can give it to others, employees have to see and experience examples of empathy from their leaders to be effective in their own roles as individual contributors. The idea is not to be paternalistic, but to lead by example, the example of empathy.

The difference between banging on a stone and building a cathedral

Executives of all kinds have varying degrees of empathy and different attitudes towards it. It may sound like yet another burden that the CEO now also has to take the role of “Chief Empathy Officer.” This comes up for detailed discussion below in the chapter on the empathy application to “Business and empathy, capitalist tool.”

Meanwhile, when I am bold and ask executives what is the budget in the organization for empathy training and empathy consulting, they usually look at me with a blank stare or just say “zero.” However, when I ask what is the budget to reduce conflict, enhance teamwork, innovate and improve productivity, inspire participation, cause the staff to take ownership of the mission and honor their agreements, then the leaderships sees possibility where none had previously been present and makes it a priority to obtain a budget.

Simply stated, empathy training consists in surfacing the resistances to empathy, the pervasive fear and cynicism (and so on) in the organization that lurks just beneath the surface; interpreting the resistance, and driving it out: “It is perfectly understandable that you would be cynical, given what you have been through, but that is not who you (we) authentically are. Rather we are the possibility of [health, transportation, nutrition, education, retirement, housing, recreation, and so on (according to the mission of the organization)].”

What would it take to design agreements that overcome resistance and commit to aligning organizational and individual goals and then taking action to implement the agreements on an ongoing schedule? The empathy training consists in engaging in a sustained dialogue for possibility around agreements that work for everyone in delivering value.

In particular, overcoming resistance to empathy, expanding empathy, is on the critical path to eliminating or at least reducing organizational conflicts and dysfunctional behaviors. When staff, executives, stake-holders, and so on, expand their empathy for one another and for customers, they are able to deescalate confrontations and negativity; they avoid provocative and devaluing language; and they are able to head off dignity violations, all of which reduce the conflicts that literally suck the life out of organizations.

When employees appreciate the possibilities of empathy, they even try to replace office politics with professional behavior. Staff get more done because they can concentrate on doing their jobs, working smarter, and serving customers and coworkers rather than struggling with departmental politics.

In addition, expanding empathy—overcoming resistance to empathy—is on the critical path to building teams. Empathy is the foundation of community, and the team is nothing if not a community. In empathy, people practice giving acknowledgment and recognition for their contribution to the success of the team and the organization. Being inclusive does not always come naturally or easily to us humans, territorial creatures that we are. We oscillate between closeness and distance like a pendulum.

However, no organization can succeed without including every contributor and turning him or her loose to do the job at hand. Even in hierarchical organizations, where departmental boundaries are rigid, empathy works to demonstrate that good fences makes good neighbors but that gates are needed in the fences through which empathy can be practiced.

Expanding empathy is also on the critical path to innovation and enhancing productivity, because people feel gotten for whom they are as a possibility and as a contribution. They stop withholding and working in quasi-competitive isolation. When they get in touch with one another as possibilities, the business results take off.

Successful leaders know the importance of drawing on the talents of every contributor. When employees get a sense of how their role and contribution fits into the whole, they work to deliver on their commitments.

That is the key to improved productivity. People are generous in sharing their ideas for process and product improvement, because they feel confident their contribution makes a difference and is recognized. For example, two workers are going through the same motions, making the same gestures. An empathic milieu makes the difference between the one, who is banging with a hammer and chisel on a chunk of stone, and the other, who is building a cathedral. The worker’s gestures are exactly the same. The one is sentenced to hard labor; the other participates in greatness.

Notes

[i] Jodi Halpern. (2001). From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Scott Adams. (1996). The Dilbert Principle. New York: Harper Business.

The Natural Empath Meets the Good Samaritan

A person can regulate his or her empathy up or down by crossing the street. The empathy lesson is that if you can cross the street to avoid the beggar, regulating your empathy down, then you can cross the street (as well as use other methods) to expand your empathy, regulating it upward. So don’t tell me that empathy cannot be dialed up or dialed down with practice. That’s the point: practice.

Crossing the street is what happened in another story with which many readers are already familiar. The story of the Good Samaritan, one of the parables of Jesus of Nazareth, tells of two people who crossed the street, and one who did not. In the story, a traveler was waylaid by robbers. He is left for dead by the side of the road. The first two persons—the Levite and the priest experienced empathic distress, and, crossed the street, passing by the victim. 

The Samaritan, however, was not overwhelmed by the victim’s suffering. The Samaritan perceived the suffering; he had a vicarious experience of the suffering that did not over-stimulate him with suffering and cause empathic distress. The Samaritan saw a fellow human being; recognized the suffering humanity; and he decided to get involved.

Multiple empathy lessons are available here. First, to regulate one’s empathy, cross the street. This is an edgy and confrontational way of putting it, but it is literally accurate. Cross the street away from the neighbor to “down regulate” your empathy, and experience less empathic distress; and cross the street towards your neighbor to expand your empathy in the direction of creating an inclusive community of persons, who recognize the value of cooperation. 

The empathy lesson is that the vicarious experience does not have to be overwhelming. Rather, with practice, one is able to shift one’s focus from suffering to neighborliness; one is able to shift one’s attention from suffering to making a difference and enhanced self-esteem, expanding community and shared humanity. 

Crossing the street is not the only way to reduce one’s chance of empathic distress or responding empathically. One may imaginatively changes places with the survivor and reflect that one would want the other’s help if one were in a similar predicament. One may spontaneously and without thinking act impulsively to be helpful, because one’s upbringing has made such responsiveness a habitual practice. (I believe this was the case with the Samaritan.) One may reflect, “I am safe and the survivor is no danger to me and it is my turn to help out.”

Or, on the contrary, one may make a devaluing judgment such as “The guy deserved what he got.” Such a judgment would be inaccurate—and in this case it would literally add insult to injury—but such thoughts do occur among by-standers. The passers-by may have just been hard-hearted. One person’s empathy is another’s antipathy. The language speaks volumes.

The empathy lesson consists in distinguishing such a devaluing thought; acknowledging that thinking is profoundly different than acting and should not be confused with it. The empathy lessons is to take action coming from one’s authentic commitments to building community through empathy, not devaluing thoughts. 

This story is an empathy lesson that also instructs us in the difference between empathy and compassion. The Samaritan’s empathy told him what the other person was experiencing; his compassion (and ethics) told him what to do about it. 

This bears repeating: empathy tells one what the other person is experiencing; compassion (and ethics) tell one what to do about it. 

We are usually taught to devalue the behavior of the Levite and the priest; and surely they do not win a prize. Yet in an alternative point of view, they were all-too-human. Seeing all that suffering embodied in the survivor, they just couldn’t take it. They succumbed to empathic distress. 

They experienced a breakdown of their empathic receptivity, and were overwhelmed in a kind of instant empathy fatigue (not compassion fatigue). 

In an alternative reading of the parable, the would-be rescuers dial down the granularity of their empathic receptivity, so as not to be too sensitive to the suffering, even as they get a sample of the suffering, which is needed to inform their humanity. 

The Good Samaritan, who is a seemingly infinite source of insight, is called to his empathic neighborliness by the distress of the injured traveller. The traveller who had fallen among thieves and was beaten near to death creates the possibility of empathic community by his loss of human well-being. He has been reduced to a lump of suffering, broken, physical pain. 

The Samaritan rescues the traveller; the traveller humanizes the Samaritan, calling him not just to the role of an altruist doing a good deed (though that occurs too), but to his possibility as a human being in relation to another fragile, suffering, dependent human being. 

The stricken traveller, by his very being, gives the Samaritan his own humanness. This occurs precisely in making the Samaritan a neighbor in answering the question, “Who is one’s neighbor?” Such was the trick question that the Pharisees posed to Jesus, to which this parable is the response. 

The Samaritan gives humanness to the distressed traveller in an intervention that defines them as part of the same community of fellow travellers—neighbors—on the road of life.

In an alternative retelling of the story suppose that the Levite and the priest were “natural empaths,” biologically predisposed to be sensitive to the pain and suffering of other people. They were endowed with a certain “delicacy of empathy,” and they feel the suffering of the world deeply. Perhaps too deeply. Some people report: “I am a natural empath—and I suffer because I feel the pain of others too acutely. I started out being empathic—but people took advantage of me—and even when they didn’t, I was just too empathic; I got overwhelmed with sensation and sucked dry—the result was burnout, compassion fatigue. Nice guys finish last—so do empathic ones.”  

Thus, the lament of the natural empath. 

Empathy becomes a burden, because the world is filled with so much suffering. Yet if the person uses avoidance to “down regulate” their empathy, the person feels guilty because the individual believes that what she is doing is unkind, thoughtless, lacking in fellow feeling, and—unempathic. 

So the natural empath falls into a double bind, and her suffering seems inevitable. She is over-whelmed by too much openness to the suffering of the other person or over-whelmed by guilt at not living up to her own standards of fellow-feeling and ethics. 

These statements imply that empathy cannot be regulated through training, albeit a training that goes in the opposite direction (from too much empathy in the moment to less empathy) than that required by the majority of people, who are out of touch with their feelings and need to “up regulate” their empathy. The empathy lesson for the natural empath is to be more flexible about her ethical standards, while attempting to tune down her empathic distress.

Some people are skeptical that “natural empaths” are all that they say they are. Natural empaths in their natural state assert that they feel overwhelmed and distressed by other people’s thoughts and feelings. I see no reason to doubt such statements. However, to some critics, a redescription of the natural empath asserts that the latter are “irritable” and “hypersensitive.” 

Empathy is recognizing and understanding the other’s perspective and then communicating that understanding to the other person. Someone who is unwittingly, even helplessly, swept along by the other’s feelings is not really being empathic. Over-identification, not empathy?[i]

The way out of this apparent impasse is to consider that the natural empath does indeed get empathic receptivity right in empathic openness to the other’s distress, but then the person’s empathy misfires. 

Whether the misfiring is over-identification, resulting in empathic distress, depends on the description and redescription. Standing on the sidelines and saying “Try harder!” is easy to do. Where is the training the person needs when they need it?

The recommendation regarding training? Most people need to expand their empathy; some people—natural empaths—need to contract (or inhibit) their empathy. Empathy regulation—learning to expand and contract empathy—is the imperative in either case. 

Instead of complaining about being an overly sensitive natural empath (however accurate that may be) do the work of practicing empathy by “down regulating” one’s empathy in a given situation, transforming empathic distress into a vicarious experience. Instead of complaining about not being pre-disposed to empathy, get up and do the work of practicing empathy, which for most persons means “up regulating,” expanding their empathy. 


[i] Lou Agosta, (2018). Empathy Lessons. Chicago: Two Pairs Press: Order empathy books click here: https://rb.gy/avwkb7

Review: Galileo’s Middle Finger: Speaking Truth to [Transgender] Power – and Power Talks Back

A scientist has not been burned at the stake in over 350 years – and even then it was Giordano Bruno, not Galileo. Find out how Professor Alice Dreger (PhD) become an advocate for survivors of intersex sexual reassignment surgery and she becomes a strong candidate to be burned in effigy by those for whom she was advocating.

This is a reposting of a book review from 2015, now included as a podcast (originally recorded on April 29, 2015 with Alice Dreger, PhD, Professor of Medical Humanities, Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine).

With transgender dynamics, identity, politics, and everything exploding in the headlines, the need for empathy around sexual identity and related issues is even more urgent and timely today than when originally broadcast.

Join me for a conversation with Alice Dreger about the conflict between scientific evidence and some interpretations of social justice and “empathy” (in quotation marks). Dreger starts out as a graduate student exploring the condition [previously] known as “hermaphroditism,” people born with sex organs that are ambiguous as to male or female, now called “intersex.”

GalileoCoverArt
 Galileo’s Middle Finger

In reading the text books studied by her medical student husband, she discovers the interventions performed to “normalize” people sexually into the two canonical categories of male or female. The parents usually follow the recommendations of the physician-surgeon who are articulating a supposed community standard that one’s genitals should unambiguously be either male or female. Dreger discovers that many of the people whose genitals were surgically transformed were subsequently lied to about their natal [birth] sex by well-intentioned doctors and well-intentioned parents following the well-intentioned doctor’s guidance. Thus, the road to hell. Find out what happens when Dreger’s research surfaces evidence that does not align perfectly with the interpretation of a social justice agenda.

This is a powerful and disturbing work. Dreger delivers a compelling narrative. A penis smaller than a person’s adult thumb or clitorises larger than one little finger, according to (some) conventional wisdom, have got to go. I am not making this up. The standard procedure was to surgically “delete” the offending member and surgically construct [some version of] the female genitals. This will, of course, resonate with Freudians everywhere as something motivated at the deepest levels of the unconscious. Not so Freudian is the proposition that if sex assignment from male to female and the raising of the infant as one rather than the other sex is the consequence, so be it. (Dreger is not interested in Freud in this text – that is my hobby.)

Dreger marshals evidence that people whose genitals are not surgically transformed as infants – but who have non-standard but otherwise healthy functioning genitals – are not worse off than those whose genitals were modified, and in many cases flourish. In at least one case, where the boy could not urinate standing up – and write his name in the snow with the stream of urine – due to the opening to the urethra being beneath the pen, the result of the surgery often produces a “cripple”. Yet the surgery continues to be performed. In other instance, the major concern expressed by the medical text books was that the child would become lesbian or gay. Ouch.

Dreger “goes to bat” for these intersex individuals, recovering their narratives out of medical records and journals where they had been documented as cases. She advocates for them. She lobbies, blogs, publishes in the popular press. Then the unintended consequences hit. Some of those for whom she is advocating don’t like some of the evidence Dreger publishes. It is not sufficiently “on point” about transgender issues being exclusively a function of a man’s brain born in a woman’s body or vice versa. The idea that a man could love himself as a woman and so want to become a woman does not compute.

As one might expect, research produces subtle nuances that require more than a sound byte or even a blog post. Suddenly Dreger finds herself the target of anger from the advocates for whom she was lobbying. It is not pretty. It gets ugly. Think self-righteous indignation as an expression of narcissistic rage and having one’s deeply felt values questioned by the evidence. There is no easy way to say it: some advocates of social justice seem to feel that the end justifies the means. The “means” include rampant forms of bullying and in-your-face confrontation, including charges of dubious ethical violations, invalid research, fictional claims about the researcher’s relations with his or her children and family, and the posting of toxic gossip on the Internet. The cause may be righteous, but the behavior is wicked and mischievous if not heinous.

Dreger survives and is vindicated. But then she begins to wonder if her experience of the collision of scientific evidence with advocacy and versions of its conventional wisdom was exceptional. Like most survivors she asks: “Is it just me?” It is not. It reminds her of the conflict between Galileo and the sedimented beliefs of the Church of his time.

A point that underlies Dreger’s work and may usefully be made more explicit: The facts of empirical science are fragile. Not only can they be shouted down by bullies, purged by tyrants such the Italian Inquisition of the 16th century, or simply ignored by the average person, the facts can also be set upon by academic, university, or institutional agendas more dedicated to building a corporate brand – and being financially well funded – than attaining an evidence-based version of the truth.

(An early version of this thesis, perhaps unknown to Dreger, is Hannah Arendt’s work on Truth and Politics. Not a historian of medicine but of political theory, Arendt makes the powerful point that if all versions of Euclid’s Geometry had been destroyed, mathematicians would still be able to recreate formal geometry out of the a priori forms of space and time; but if Stalin had really succeeded in purging all examples that such a person as Leon Trotsky had existed, then we really never would have heard of such an individual’s factual existence. Facts are fragile. )

A case in point. It is conventional wisdom since Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Wills (1975), that rape is primarily an act of power by the perpetrator (usually a man), not one of sex. While not primarily a scientific treatise, it becomes the basis for research that gathers sufficient evidence and the thesis “power not sex” becomes “conventional wisdom.”

Enter a young (male) scholar who has a strong hunch he can prove an exception to the rule. No, sometimes rape is motivated by sex. Sometimes a guy, who has no prospect that the intended woman would have sex with him (but who he desires sexually) decides to use force. This naïve academic sees a dissertation topic that is a cut above the usual scholarly drivel. A dissertation is delivered to that effect. Not only does all hell break loose – he is silenced by angry activists – but it gets worse. The phone rings. It is a prosecuting attorney needing help with a case.

The District Attorney is bringing charges against a perpetrator, an alleged rapist standing trial for his crime. The defense is arguing effectively that science has shown that rape is about power, not sex. The perpetrator could not possibly have been motivated to the crime by sex. Science says so. Wait a minute. Rape is never about sex? It is now a defense against rape that there was no other motive than sex?

Since 1975 we have seen date rape and the use of incapacitating “date rape drugs” such as anesthetics facilitate the violation. Surely advocates and scientists can encompass the possibility that sometimes rape is about power, sometimes it is about sex, and sometimes, it is both (p. 125). Don’t be too sure. There is a deep lesson about human nature here. Constant dialogue is needed to keep people in rational communication without distortion and manipulation. The desire to be righteous and justified is pervasive and extends across all political spectrums. The ability to listen has rarely been in such short supply.

Another case. Napoleon Chagnon writes an innovative and disruptive work of anthropology (Yanomamö: The Fierce People). He argues that Margaret Mead’s vision of a peaceful coming of age in Samoa in a sexually liberated version of a hippie-like commune may not be the only paradigm of the life of native indigenous peoples. (Mead herself was subjected to a debunking, the factual basis of which turned out to be, shall we say, less than rock solid.) The Yanomamö in South America are more like warring bands of Hobbes’ “war of all against all” or the tribes of the Peloponnesian peninsula, with Achilles throwing a narcissistic fit – “I stole her fair and square” – because Agamemnon took his plundered woman.

Chagnon is a virtual Dreyfus Affair in the American Association of Anthropologists. Alfred Dreyfus (you may recall) was stripped of his epaulets, his campaign badges ripped off his chest, and he was banished to Devil’s Island (my metaphor, not Dreger’s). Years later, Chagnon is vindicated (as was Dreyfus) and “rehabilitated.” But only after years of upset, suffering, and the monumental expense of mounting a defense against false accusations as recounted in his My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. The bottom line? According to Dreger, in addition to the political infighting, wicked and mischievous gossip, and an alleged series of narcissistic injuries unintentionally committed by Chagnon against colleagues, it was politically inexpedient to represent indigenous peoples as warlike.

Dreger documents in detail the appalling political intrigues, plots misfired and rebounding onto the heads of the perpetrators, and the narrow mindedness of academics who ought to have adhered to scientific standards rather than tit-for-tat gamesmanship. Dreger’s work is definitely a page turner, reading like a spy novel or an account out of Kafka’s The Trial. Speaking personally, it made me paranoid at points. I felt discouraged at the alternating narcissistic rage and petty retaliation enacted for real or imagined slights to which both scientists and advocates for social justice seem all-too-prone.

The drama goes on. It escalates. Maria New, MD, is a celebrity woman’s doctor of long service and, at least initially, significant distinction. Dr New advocates that early stage pregnant women take dexamethasone (off-label, though FDA approved to prevent miscarriage) when the parental profile shows a one in eight chance that the female fetus may have congenital adrenal hyperplasic (CAH)). Basically CAH means that the baby might be a “boyish girl” if left untreated. Heavens to mergatroid – a lesbian? But since there were never any controlled studies of the consequences of taking dexamethasone (dex), it is not clear if the cognitive impairment, the deformed genitals, other anomalies, were due to the action of the drug or whether the drug was simply ineffective for its off-label use.

Dreger believes she has an “open and shut” case of an ethical violation that research subjects were not informed that they were participating in what amounts to a experiment, a far cry from a “safe and effective” treatment. The FDA oversight representative embedded in the research teams raises a number of red flags. Her career is ended on a pretext, and Dr New transitions to a different university without so much as a warning in any file.

One thing is for sure. Taking the case to the FDA and the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP) reveals a level of indifference, human clumsiness, and subtle, unexamined conflicts of interest and self-dealing that again approach’s Kafka’s The Trial. Appalling. By the way, if ones want to receive this treatment during early stage pregnancy with the hope of dialing down the masculinization of the fetus, it is still legally available from Dr New and her associates, though Dreger has made it her project to dominate the Google listings with warnings about the risks of the treatment.

Dreger’s point is that the use of dex to influence the process of masculization of the fetus is experimental as used off label (the “on label” use is not to treat CAH, but to prevent miscarriage, for which it seems to be effective). The women to whom it was given to treat CAH were never told and never signed an informed consent form to participate in what was basically an experimental use of the drug. “Safe and effective” remains unproven for CAH, and evidence to the contrary is emerging. However, what really put the kabash on the treatment with dex is that it has been branded an anti-Lesbian drug. More good news. It is not as bad as thalidomide; but possibly another DES fiasco in the making.

In conclusion, Dreger offers reflections inspired by the Founding Fathers of the early days of the United States and such politician-statesmen as Benjamin Franklin. No stranger to risk, Franklin was both flying a kite in a thunderstorm and building a structure of government capable of correcting its own errors (not on the same day). Thanks to such men, we are all better off than Galileo when speaking truth to power. Free scientific inquiry needs a free social and fair political space to flourish. Justice requires access to accurate facts and a way of testing evidence that distinguishes fact from fiction The truth is vulnerable to the influences and distortions of the social organization of power.

Granted that a scientist has not been burned at the stake for over 500 years, that is no reason for complacency. I could not help but think that Professor Dreger was well on the way to being a candidate, though admittedly the burning was “in effigy.” Bad enough! There have been many ruined careers and damaged lives due to bullying and political abuses. Dreger bemoans the “push down” of the press and investigative journalism – in short, the decline of the press beneath the pressures of a publishing market in distress, the Google-ad-industrial-complex, and on the Internet no one knows you are a dog. While the Internet is a multi-edged sword and sends fear into the hearts of tyrants everywhere, it is easy to abuse. It is a dubious format for rational discourse and evidence-based anything. That should not stop one from posting her or his peer-reviewed research (this is not an example of that) but it means one must also mount the soap-box on a regular basis and speak truth to power.

Alice Dreger. (2015). Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. New York: Penguin.

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

Radio Empathy is now on the air as a podcast: New episode: A rigorous and critical empathy: Perform a readiness assessment

Empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time for it. Empathy is never needed more than when it seems the budget does not allow for it. Empathy is never needed more than when the cynicism and resignation about life, whether in the family or the corporate jungle, are so thick you can’t catch your breath. 

Being ready for empathy is like being ready to be born. No one is ready to be born. You just get born. Ready or not, the individual is thrown into the world. No one asked you if you wanted a life. You just got one. 

Empathy enables you to have a human existence filled with satisfying, engaging, dynamic, fulfilling relationships instead of living in an empty,  depopulated emotional desert. 

There is enough empathy to go around. The key to the empathy readiness assessment is realizing enough empathy is available for everyone. Empathy is not a zero sum game. There do not have to be losers versus winners. If you can get your head around the idea that there is enough empathy available in the world—crazy as that idea may seem at first—then you are ready to engage with expanding empathy in your life and the community.

Lou wearing a rigorous and critical empathy t-shirt, courtesy of Xavier Ramey and the UChicago Community Service Center

Seems impossible? Let us take a step back. You know how we can feed everyone on the planet, so that there should be no need for people to get sick and die of starvation? Thanks to the “Green Revolution,” high tech seeds, and the economies of scale of agri-business, enough food exists to feed everyone. Yet people are starving. People are starving in the Middle East, Africa, and in parts of the USA. People are starving because of politics in the pejorative sense, breakdowns in social justice, violence, aggression, bullying, cynicism, bias, prejudice, fragmentation of communities, and human badness. There is enough food to feed everyone, but it is badly distributed. 

Likewise, with empathy. Enough empathy is available to go around; but it is not evenly distributed. People are living and working in empathy deserts. 

Organizational politics in the pejorative sense of the words, attempts to control and dominate, egocentrism and narcissism, out-and-out aggression and greed, stress and burnout, all result in empathy deserts. Empathy gets hoarded, creating empathy deserts locally, even amid an abundant ability to practice empathy.

Create a clearing for success in working on expanding your empathy, contributing to growing empathy in yourself, other individuals, and the community. Perform a readiness assessment for empathy training

Therefore, this guide to bringing forth a rigorous and critical empathy training does not call for “more” empathy, but rather for “expanded” empathy. The difference is subtle. Commenting “We need more empathy here!” implies the individual is unempathic—are you saying I lack empathy!?—and that is an insult, a dignity violation, a narcissistic injury, creating even more conflict and shrinking empathy. 

The way we put our words together makes a profound difference. Experience indicates the call for “more empathy” results in a further breakdown of empathy. In contrast, calling for “expanded empathy” makes a difference in getting unstuck from difficult, sticky situations, reestablishing relatedness, de-escalating conflict, interrupting anger or soothing rage, shifting out of upset, and overcoming the challenges of relating in a world that can from time-to-time be decidedly unempathic. 

In extreme cases, a person may in fact lack empathy in a medical or legal sense—the serial killer, the psychopath, and persons suffering from mental illnesses, or, more sympathetically, one of the disorders of empathy such as an autism spectrum disorder. However, such persons are exceptions or in an exceptional situation. 

In most cases, individuals have a significant empathic ability with which the individual is out of touch. The person lacks self-knowledge, has a blind spot, and does not know himself to be empathic. The person’s empathy is implicit and is waiting to be expanded. Therefore, a rigorous and critical guide calls out for expanded empathy—to leverage the kernel of empathy that already exists in the person’s humanity and develop it, if not into a mountain, at least into a heaping hill of empathy. 

One reason that empathy training programs have not worked or have produced disappointing results is that they train the participants in compassion, being nice, conflict resolution, baby and child care, and a number of worthy and admirable skills. This is all well and good, and the use of compassionate methods is making the world a better place in all these situations. So keep it up. There is nothing wrong with reducing conflict, being nice, agreeable, and so on: do not be “unnice.” But paradoxically something is missing—practicing a rigorous and critical empathy. 

Now I do not wish to give anyone a bad name, especially anyone who is committed to empathy, compassion, conflict resolution, or making a difference in overcoming human pain and suffering. On the contrary, I acknowledge and honor one and all. The battle against suffering is joined; we are all on the same side; and we want to deploy our resources wisely.

As soon as one announces a commitment (for example): “I am going to expand empathy in my life,” then all the reasons that it is utterly impossible to do so show up. “What are you thinkin’ fella?” Not enough time. Not enough money.   Resistance to empathy does not mean that one fails the readiness assessment to expand one’s empathy. It means that one is a human being. 

People have blind spots about empathy. People have blind spots, period.  Part of the readiness assessment? Those who take the implicit bias test discover they have biases—often several (see Teaching Tolerance 2020). When it comes to doing the work required actually to listen and respond empathically to others, people make exceptions for themselves—and their biases and inauthenticities. No exceptions!

The one question readiness assessment for empathy is: “Am I ready to do what it takes to clean up my inauthenticities in my practice of empathy?” (Key term: clean up.) Even if you are not completely sure what this means, being willing to agree to the statement is enough to get started. 

When it comes to a readiness assessment, the “willingness” is easy. Speaking personally, even lazy people can get their heads around willingness; and once a person puts his foot out onto the slippery slope of willingness, well, it is downhill all way. Sliding downhill may have its occasional bumps, and you have to apply the brake at times; but it is a lot easier than climbing up the hill. 

Look it, dude. I would be kidding you if I said no effort is required. Effort is required to expand your empathy. It is going to take something—and, at times, something extra by way of effort. Mostly it requires taking an honest look at oneself. That is not trivial. It may be confronting. But if you are getting vicariously traumatized trying to be empathic, then you are doing it wrong. Throttle back. Take a break. 

Being willing to clean up one’s authenticities is precisely the empathy lesson. The “gotcha” is that the inauthenticities in one’s life are not limited just to empathy. However, empathy leads the way. The readiness for a rigorous and critical empathy requires, well, rigor and a willingness to be self-critical. The readiness for empathy requires doing the work required to create a clearing for empathic success, a clearing of integrity and authenticity. 

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

Review: The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir by Sherry Turkle

The short review: the title, The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir (Sherry Turkle New York: Penguin Press, 2021, 357 pp.) reveals that empathy lives, comes forth, in empathy’s breakdowns and failings. Empathy often emerges in clarifying a lack of empathy. This work might have been entitled, less elegantly, “The Lack of Empathy Diaries.” I found the book to be compellingly written, even a page-turner at times, highly recommended. But, caution, this is not a “soft ball” review.”

Do not misunderstand me. Sherry Turkle’s mom (Harriet), Aunt Mildred, grand parents, and the extended Jewish family, growing up between Brooklyn and Rockaway, NY, were empathic enough. They were generous in their genteel poverty. They gloried in flirting with communism and emphasizing, in the USA, it was a federal offense to open anyone else’s mail. Privacy is one of the foundations of empathy – and democracy. Sherry’s folks talked back to the black and white TV, and struggled economically in the lower middle class, getting dressed up for Sabbath on High Holidays and shaking hands with the neighbors on the steps of the synagogue as if they could afford the seats, which they could not, then discretely disappearing.

As Tolstoy famously noted, all happy families are alike. What Tolstoy did not note was that many happy families are also unhappy ones. Figure that one out! Sherry’s answer to Tolstoy is her memoir.

Families have secrets, and one was imposed on the young Sherry. Her mother married Charles Zimmerman, which was her last name as he was the biological father. Within a noticeably short time, mom discovered a compelling reason to divorce Charles. The revelation of his “experiments” on the young Sherry form a suspenseful core to the narrative, about which more shortly. 

Mom gets rid of Charles and within about another year marries Milton Turkle, which becomes Sherry’s name at home and the name preferred by her Mom for purposes of forming a family. There’s some weirdness with this guy, too, which eventually emerges; but he does have a penis and a younger brother and sister show up apace. 

In our own age of blended families, trial marriages, and common divorce, many readers are, like, “What’s the issue?” The issues is that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, even as the sexual revolution and first feminist wave were exploding on the scene, in many communities, divorce was stigmatizing. Key term: stigma. Don’t talk about it. It is your dark secret. 

The rule for Sherry of tender age was “you are really a Turkle at home and at the local deli; but at school you are a Zimmerman.” Once again, while that may be a concern, what’s the big deal? The issue is: Sherry, you are not allowed to talk about it. It is a secret. Magical thinking thrives. To young Sherry’s mind, she is wondering if it comes out will she perhaps no longer be a part of the family – abandoned, expelled, exiled. Even the siblings do not find out about the “name of the father” (a Lacanian allusion) until adulthood. A well kept secret indeed. Your books from school, Sherry, which have “Zimmerman” written in them, must be kept in a special locked cupboard.  

How shall I put it delicately? Such grown up values and personal politics – and craziness – could get a kid of tender age off her game. This could get one confused or even a tad neurotic oneself. The details of how all these dynamics get worked out make for a page turner. 

Fast forward. Sherry finds a way to escape from this craziness through education. Sherry is smart. Very smart. Her traditionally inclined elders tell her, “Read!” They won’t let her do chores. “Read!” Reading is a practice that expands one’s empathy. This being the early 1960s, her folks make sure she does not learn how to type. No way she is going to the typing pool to become some professors typist. She is going to be the professor! This, too, is the kind of empathy on the part of her family unit, who recognized who she was, even amidst the impingements and perpetrations. 

Speaking personally, I felt a special kinship with this young person, because something similar happened to me. I escaped from a difficult family situation through education, though all the details are different – and I had to do a bunch of chores, too!

The path is winding and labyrinthine; but that’s what happened. Sherry gets a good scholarship to Radcliffe (women were not yet allowed to register at Harvard). She meets and is mentored by celebrity sociologist David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd) and other less famous but equally inspiring teachers. 

She gets a grant to undertake a social psychological inquiry into the community of French psychoanalysis, an ethnographic study not of an indigenous tribe in Borneo but a kind of tribe nonetheless in the vicinity of Paris, France. 

The notorious “bad boy” Jacque Lacan is disrupting all matters psychoanalytic. His innovations consist in fomenting rebellion in psychoanalytic thinking and in the community. “The name of the father” (Lacan’s idea about Oedipus) resonates with Turkle personally. 

Lacan speaks truth to [psychoanalytic] power, resulting in one schism after another in the structure of psychoanalytic institutes and societies. Turkle intellectually dances around the hypocrisy, hidden in plain view, but ultimately calls it out: challenging authority is encouraged as long as the challenge is not directed at the charismatic leader, Lacan, himself. This is happening shortly after the students and workers form alliance in Paris May 1968, disrupting the values and authority of traditional bourgeois society. A Rashomon story indeed. Turkle’s working knowledge of the French language makes rapid advances. 

Turkle, whose own psychoanalysis is performed by more conventional American analysts in the vicinity of Boston (see the book for further details), is befriended by Lacan. This is because Lacan wants her to write nice things about him. He is didactic, non enigmatic amid his enigmatic ciphers. Jaques is nice to her. I am telling you – you can’t make this stuff up. Turkle is perhaps the only – how shall I put it delicately – attractive woman academic that he does not try to seduce. Lacan “gets it” – even amid his own flawed empathy – you don’t mess with this one. Yet Lacan’s trip to Boston – Harvard and MIT – ends in disaster. This has nothing – okay, little – to do with Turkle – though her colleague are snarky. The reason? Simple: Lacan can’t stop being Lacan. 

Turkle’s long and deep history of having to live with the “Zimmerman / Turkle” name of the father lie, hidden in plain view, leaves Turkle vulnerable in matters of the heart. She meets and is swept off her feet by Seymour Papert, named-chair professor at MIT, an innovator in computing technology and child psychology, the collaborator with Marvin Minsky, and author of Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.

Seymour ends up being easy to dislike in spite of his authentic personal charm, near manic enthusiasm, interestingness, and cognitive pyrotechnics. Warning signs include the surprising ways Sherry have to find out about his grown up daughter and second wife, who is actually the first one. Sherry is vulnerable to being lied to. The final straw is Seymour’s cohabitating with a woman in Paris over the summer, by this time married to Sherry. Game over; likewise, the marriage. To everyones credit, they remain friends. 

Sherry’s academic career features penetrating and innovative inquiries into how smart phone, networked devices, and screens – especially screens – affect our attention and conversations. The research methods are powerful: she talks to people, notes what they say, and tries to understand their relationships with one another and with evocative objects, the latter not exactly Winnicott’s transitional objects, but perhaps close enough for purposes of a short review. 

The reader can imagine her technology mesmerized colleagues at MIT not being thrilled by her critique of the less than humanizing aspects of all these interruptions, eruptions, and corruptions of and to our attention and ability to be fully present with other human beings. 

After a struggle, finding a diplomatic way of speaking truth to power, Turkle gets her tenured professorship, reversing an initial denial (something that rarely happens). The denouement is complete. The finalè is at hand. 

Sherry hires a private detective and reestablishes contact with her biological father, Charles. His “experiments” on Sherry that caused her mother to end the marriage, indeed flee from it, turn out to be an extreme version of the “blank face” attachment exercises pioneered by Mary Main, Mary Ainsworth and colleagues, based on John Bowlby’s attachment theory. The key word here is: extreme. I speculate that Charles was apparently also influenced by Harry Harlow’s “love studies” with rhesus monkeys, subjecting them to extreme maternal deprivation (and this is not in Turkle). It didn’t do the monkeys a lot of good, taking down their capacity to love, attachment, much less the ability to be empathic (a term noticeably missing from Harlow), leaving them, austic like emotional hulks, preferring clinging to surrogate cloth mothers to food. Not pretty. In short, Sherry’s mother comes home unexpectedly to find Sherry (of tender age) crying her eyes out in distress, all alone, with Charles in the next room. Charles offers mom co-authorship of the article to be published, confirming that he really doesn’t get it. Game over; likewise, the marriage. 

On a personal note, I was engaged by Turkle’s account of her time at the University of Chicago. Scene change. She is sitting there in lecture room Social Science 122, which I myself frequented. Bruno Bettelheim comes in, puts a straight back chair in the middle of the low stage, and delivers a stimulating lecture without notes, debating controversial questions with students who were practicing speaking truth to power. It is a tad like batting practice – the student throws a fast ball, the Professor gives it a good whack. Whether the reply was a home run or a foul ball continues to be debated. I was in the same lecture, same Professor B, about two years later. Likewise with Professors Victor Turner, David Grene, and Saul Bellow of the Committee on Social Thought. My own mentors were Paul Ricoeur (Philosophy and Divinity) and Stephen Toulmin, who joined the Committee and Philosophy shortly after Turkle returned to MIT. 

Full discourse: my dissertation on Empathy and Interpretation was in the philosophy department, but most of my friends were studying with the Committee, who organized the best parties. I never took Bellow’s class on the novel – my loss – because it was credibly reported that he said it rotted his mind to read student term papers; and I took that to mean he did not read them. But perhaps he actually read them, making the sacrifice. We will never know for certain. One thing we do know for sure is that empathy is no rumor in the work of Sherry Turkle. Empathy lives  in her contribution.  

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

The Evidence: Empathy is Teachable, Trainable, Learnable

This essay is an excerpt from Chapter Four of the book Empathy Lessons. This essay is motivated by the need to debunk the position that the practice of empathy is vague and fuzzy and cannot be taught, that you either have it or you don’t. Bunk. I am addressing scientists, researchers, health care professionals who dismiss empathy as not scientific of evidence-based.

Substantial evidence is available that if you practice empathy, you get better at it. A bold statement of the obvious? Indeed. Yet the requirement to marshal the evidence is a significant one, even if it is often a function of resistance to practicing a rigorous and critical empathy. Key term: resistance to empathy. Overcome the resistance to empathy and the practice of empathy spontaneously and naturally comes forth. [See Empathy Lessons and other books by Lou Agosta on empathy: https://amzn.to/2S0ISPr.%5D

Evidence-based empathy

Even if one understands “evidence” in the most narrow and rigorous sense, substantial evidence is available from peer-reviewed research and publictions that empathy training is effective. The implications for evidence-based empathy training are direct. Empathy works. Some of this material may seem difficult or complex; but it is important to engage with it, because it undercuts the subtle resistances to empathy that dismiss empathy in the misguided belief that there are no evidence-based peer reviewed publications.

The first example is an empathy intervention so short that it passed the Institutional Review Board (IRB) criteria for the use of human subjects. The study was complete before people had a chance to drop out. An advertisement went out for people to receive a complimentary, free screening and short intervention for “problem drinking.” In fact, only problem drinkers responded. 

The people were divided randomly into groups and given either an immediate check up with confrontational counseling that directed them to stop drinking; or the subjects were given a check up with motivational interviewing that used client-centered counseling and did not try counsel changing the client’s behavior, but in the manner of motivational interviewing explored the person’s motives with him or her. Motivational interviewing employs empathic methods of listening and questioning and, in this example, becomes a proxy for empathy.

Strictly speaking, the counselor facilitated a dicussion with the client of what might happen if the client either did or did not stop (reduce) drinking. A third group of clients was wait-listed, for control, without intervention. Motivational interviewing is a client-centered intervention that relies on empathic listening, questioning, and responding. 

Both groups that received intervention resulted in a 57% reduction in drinking within six weeks, and the result was sustained at 1 year. However, there was one dramatic finding. The lead researcher and author (William Miller) reports: “Therapist styles did not differ in overal impact on drinking, but a single therapist behavior was predictive (r = .65) of 1-year outcome such that the more the therapist confronted, the more the client drank.”[i]

This bears repeating: the more confrontational the counselor, the more the client drank. If one starts with a confrontational approach rather than empathy, one is headed for trouble. 

In another study, perspective taking was practiced in which the other person was imagined to be a neighbor or a member of one’s own community rather than a stranger.[ii] This examines empathic interpretation, though the study does not use that terminology. Practice perspective taking, it improves. 

Other practitioners have developed exercises that focus on specific groups such as doctors of individuals with autism. This expands empathic understanding, though, once again, the terminology is different. Other experiments conduct explicit training in mentalizing, specifically, teaching participants in the training about associations between target facial expressions and emotions.[iii]

In a separate study, a large meta analysis by the Cochrane Library that reviewed fifty-nine peer-reviewed studies with 13,342 participants of a motivational interviewing intervention based on empathy for substance abuse over against other active interventions or no intervention and produced a similar result: motivational interviewing helped people cut down on drugs and alcohol.[iv]

Still, the debate goes on. 

Is the empathic questioning, the back-and-forth conversation, in the motivational interview that causes something (attitude, hope, fear, and so on) in the client to shift? Or do people convince themselves? Or do they just get better informed? Or do they stop blaming themselves and feel better, and so they “self medicate” less with alcohol or street drugs? 

Lots of questions. No easy answers. Yet when something is so effective across so many studies and researchers are still skeptical, then one has to say: “Okay, skepticism is proper and scientific. Yet nothing is wrong here; but there is something missing—empathy.”

Let’s do the numbers. 

Evidence shows that those who train and practice being empathic succeed in expanding their empathy. Educational programs that target empathy have a demonstrably positive effect on empathy skills, according to peer reviewed studies.[v]

Another case in point: a meta analysis of 17 empathy nursing courses in an educational context indicated statistically significant improvement in empathy scores in 11 of the 17 studies (and non statistically significant improvements in the other 6). Similar positive outcomes were reported when medical students, training to be doctors, were included. When nurses and medical students work at practicing empathy; and they get better at it. How about that.[vi]

A disturbing factoid: The empathy of persons studying to become physicians peaks in the third year of medical school according to measures applied periodically (as reported by Dr. M. Hojat and his colleagues at Thomas Jefferson University).[vii] Empathy expands; but then it seems to contract. The suspicion is that the burnout occurs in the “college of hard knocks.”

Use it or lose it? The stereotype of the harried medical doctor, seeing twenty or thirty patients a day, is increasingly accurate. As the MD (or other health care professional) is pushed down into survival mode, empathy is not improved or expanded. Hear me say it, and not for the last time, the things that make us good at the corporate transformation of American medicine, improving productivity and efficiency, do not expand our empathy. This does not mean that empathy and efficiency are mutually exclusive. It means we have to get better at balancing quantity and quality in both business and empathy. 

In another example, training sessions directed at aggressive adolescent girls in a residential treatment center showed the benefits of expanded affective empathy. Affective empathy is the automatic dimension of empathy (“empathic receptivity” in my definition) that is perhaps hardest to influence.[viii] Parental effectiveness training (PET) was demonstrated to move the participants from below facilitative on the Truax Accurate Empathy Scale up to or beyond the facilitative level. “Facilitative” means knowing how to get things done. That is, the outcome is that the parent’s empathic effectiveness was expanded.[ix]

The effectiveness of empathy training is not limited to the affective dimension. A team at the University of Toronto produced a meta analysis of twenty-nine articles, using seven different approaches to empathy training. All the studies except two (93%) had positive outcomes, improving the cognitive component of empathy (86%). These studies were distributed as follows: education (24%), nursing (14%), therapy (7%), medicine (21%), social work (3%), psychology (7%), human service (7%), couples (10%) and divorcees (3%). Regardless of the training method, individuals expand their empathy when they practice or engage in effortful training.[x]

In another study, some 42 couples involved in a romantic relationship completed a five week empathy training program. The change in empathy was assessed by measured analyses of variance. The assessment reproduced the positive results of earlier findings. The training produced reliably increased empathic interaction between the partners. Scores on three empathic measures improved over a follow up six month period.[xi]

Further evidence that empathy is trainable is available in “The Roots of Empathy” (ROE). This is a formal program developed by Mary Gordon and colleagues in Canada. 

First started in 1996 and introduced into U.S. schools in 2007, the ROE program has been featured on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the USA. ROE aims to build more peaceful and caring communities by expanding empathy in children.[xii]

The program targets elementary school classes, and consists of weekly visits to the class room by a new born baby and the baby’s mother for an entire school year. The group sits in a circle and the mom and baby interact, accompanied by a conversation about the life of the baby, biologically, psychologically, and socially. 

The empathy lessons are elementary—unless you do not happen to have ever been exposed to a baby or the empathic care of one. Babies cry when they are hungry or wet or cold; they coo and gurgle and giggle when they are content and happy. 

Some lessons are elementary; some, sophisticated, engaging with human development, of which the baby is Exhibit A, as the baby grows throughout the school year. 

The roots of empathy are present in front of the class: the baby. The powerful presence of the baby calls forth the emotional resonance, natural curiosity, and wonder of the children. The baby provides the empathy lessons, in effect being the teacher. The baby provides the opening for conversations with the children about human development, socialization, and building a community. The vast majority of human beings are naturally inspired to care for a baby. Whether people know how to deliver such care effectively is a separate issue, requiring separate training. A complex species, these humans: human beings are naturally empathic just as they are also naturally aggressive. 

At the heart of this kindergarten through 8th grade program is the goal of dialing down aggressive behavior patterns in children at an early age, in particular, curbing bullying (about which more in an entire chapter below). For example, roughly 160,000 children miss school every day “due to fear of an attack or intimidation by other students,” according to the National Education Association. 

The program also documents an 11% improvement in standardized achievement tests for the class that is exposed to the Roots of Empathy intervention.[xiii] This is definitely not a predictable result. It should put us in touch with the humbling sense that there are many things that we do not even know we do not know. 

When kids get the empathy to which they are entitled, they study harder and work smarter. When bullying is reduced, kids are less fearful, are less distracted, have more fun, and are able to study. When they study harder and smarter, they get improved scores.

The results of the program are “over the top” positive; and since this is the age of evidence-based everything, the program also spend a lot of cycles gathering key metrics on the results of the roots of empathy. A randomized control trial was conducted. 

Findings indicated that children who had participated in the program compared to children who had not, were more advanced in their social and emotional understanding on all dimensions assessed. These included emotional understanding, perspective-taking, peer acceptance, classroom supportiveness, pro-social behavior and characteristics. Concomitant reductions in aggressive behaviors and increases in pro-social behaviors (e.g., helping, sharing, cooperating) were noted. 

In particular, teachers rated three child (student) behavior outcomes (physical aggression, indirect aggression, and pro-social behavior). The Roots of Empathy program had statistically significant and replicated beneficial effects on all three child behavior outcomes.[xiv]

Peer reviewed research is compelling, but equally compelling are market dynamics: organizations are voting with their dollars that empathy is trainable. 

People with chronic life style diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, congestive heart failure, asthma, and so on, enjoy statistically favorable outcomes when their physicians show empathy—a fancy way of saying people “get better.” 

Relying on such evidence, a company called “Empathetics” has been founded to train medical doctors in expanding their empathy. 

Using intellectual property developed at Massachusetts General Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University, Empathetics, Inc. trains physicians in expanding their empathy through the use of biofeedback. 

The CEO, Helen Riess, MD, delivered a Ted Talk about the value of empathy in health care.[xv] Dr. Riess and her colleagues at Mass General performed a meta analysis of the effects of empathy on all kinds of diseases. 

Dr. Riess (and her colleagues) report on randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in adult patients, in which the patient-clinician relationship was systematically monitored and healthcare outcomes were either objective (e.g., blood pressure) or validated subjective measures (e.g., pain scores). Those doctors (and related professionals) that scored higher on the empathy screening tests had demonstrably better patient outcomes than those with lower empathy scores. 

Three trials included patients with diabetes, two included patients with osteoarthritis. Other disorders included fibromyalgia, oncology, lower respiratory infection, osteoarthritis, hypertension, smoking, somatic complaints, and asthma. The median patient sample size was 279 (range: 85 to 7,557). That’s a lot of people. 

In summary, empathic doctoring produces favorable results. Patients get better compared with those whose doctors who do not score as well on the applied empathy scale. A word of caution. Correlation points to a significant path to improved outcome through empathic relatedness, but, at least in the context of this study, correlation is not causation.

Using the language of evidence-based medicine is trending. The “effect size” of empathy is so large that it overwhelms any confounding variables that might be hiding beneath the surface of experience. Thus, empathy fits right in with the trend. The results are compelling. Applying empathy in interacting with the vast majority of people is like using penicillin to treat the vast majority of significant bacterial infections. Applying empathy in interacting with people is like using a parachute when jumping out of an airplane. If you don’t do it, you are headed for trouble. 

Common factor, empathy, in social healing practices

Psychotherapy is regarded as an example of a social healing practice. Psychotherapy is a conversation for possibility between two persons, one of whom is dealing with difficult personal issues and emotions and another person who is committed to making a difference through empathy. 

Experience shows that physical disorders, injuries, and lesions get elaborated psychosocially. This is not just hypochondria or imaginary disorders that are “in someone’s head.” This is lower back pain, migraines, life style disorders such as type 2 diabetes, asthma, and irritable bowel that are aggravated by job, family, and relationship issues (conflicts, stresses, upsets) in a person’s life. Nutrition and exercise are behavioral practices that positively affect health, but can be difficult to influence. 

People have different ways of expressing their pain and suffering. When an investigation of the person’s life indicates that non-biological factors are contributing to the person’s decline or distress, then it is useful to engage an alternative point of view on pain and suffering. It is useful to undertake an inquiry without making too many assumptions that one knows what is actually going on. It is useful to have a conversation for possibility. 

The first person to undertake such an inquiry of whom we have any record was named “Socrates.” His student, Plato, wrote down what Socrates had to say, the most famous statement of which was that he knew only one thing: “I know that I do not know.” Socratic’s approach was so powerful that he was able to undertake fundamental inquiries that challenged his own inauthenticities and those of the persons with whom he engaged in dialogue. His questioning led to insights about basic values of truth, right and wrong, pleasure and enjoyment, and the organization of the community. The example of Socrates inspired talk therapists of all kinds—not to mention religious leaders, politicians of integrity, and educators in diverse disciplines. 

The word “empathy” does not occur in Plato’s dialogues with Socrates, who instead spoke of being a “midwife” of ideas. When a friend of mine read this account of Socrates as a midwife, he shared with me an anecdote from when he was a medical student. He was walking through the hospital maternity department one evening after class. As he passed an open door, one of the patient’s called out to him. She was in labor and she asked his help. As he told me candidly, at that time in his medical training, he knew nothing about childbirth. Thus, as far as he was concerned, the qualification of Socratic ignorance was satisfied. 

My friend asked the woman how he could help. She asked to hold his hand. He thought to himself, “Now this I know how to do!” He held her hand for awhile. She pushed and pushed. The result was a healthy baby boy. How or why the woman was left alone, and what further help arrived was not specified. 

My friend cited this as an example of empathic understanding that just shows up spontaneously. In his recollection this was an example of empathy at a moment of crisis to which no words were adequate. I would say the woman was training him in being empathic, and the empathy lesson worked just fine. 

Socrates did not claim to produce original knowledge himself. But he acted as a midwife for others, who were trying to give birth to sustainable, viable knowledge. In terms of empathic understanding, Socrates exemplified the commitment to new possibilities as opposed to conformity. Socrates made the case for dwelling in the comfort-zone stretching, discomfort of open-ended inquiry in the face of “being right.” He helped his dialogue partners give birth to ideas of their own and distinguish those ideas that are viable from those that are still-born. 

Socrates enjoyed a special relationship with his students and colleagues. He had a special rapport that was a combination ofidealization and affection that set him apart from many of the other teachers of his time, called “Sophists.” The latter were masters of argumentation and rhetoric for hire. 

The sophists were perhaps the original purveyors of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Socrates’ relationship with the sophists in the community was not positive. He spoke truth to power in such a way that those in power were deeply threatened. Some of those in authority came to fear and hate him. 

Eventually Socrates was indicted and convicted, in a trial of questionable merit, of a crime against the state, corrupting the youth. For reasons that are still controversial today, Socrates decided to drink the hemlock instead of fleeing into exile, becoming a martyr to prejudice and political intrigue. 

Nevertheless, the principles that Socrates espoused have become the basis for talk therapy—and overcoming resistance to empathy. To engage in therapy with human beings in their struggle with emotional pain and suffering requires: providing a gracious and generous listening and an authentic human response; inquiry into possibility and open-ended questioning; an alliance between the therapist and client against the disorder and suffering against which the client is struggling; and an understanding of cultural context and community. 

Amid an alphabet soup of therapeutic approaches today, the Socratic method of inquiry stands out as a common factor. It is challenging to try to find something in common between cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), eye movement desensitization routine (EMDR), rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), psychodynamic therapy, psychoanalysis, existential and humanistic psychotherapy, and so on. 

“Common factor” is an idea given credibility by Jerome and Julia Frank in their book on Persuasion and Healing.[xvi] The Franks debunk not only psychoanalysis, but also many of the alternative therapeutic approaches. The Franks’ position is that the beneficial results of therapy are a function of persuasion and suggestion. The therapist is applying his or her own empathic and emotionally generous personality in the context of the trusted relationship, committed to healing, to persuade the client to alter his habitual life practices in the direction of behaviors that are adaptive, accommodating, and empowering. The hypnotists called it “the rapport”; modern practitioners, “the therapeutic alliance.” 

However, the point here is not to back into an advertisement for empathy. Rather the point is to look at what actually happens in stage one of therapy whether it is CBT, DBT, or one of the diverse talk therapies. Each of these interventions, after establishing a framework around schedule and fee, takes steps to deepen and expand the client’s “in touchness with” his or her own experiences. In DBT this is called “mindfulness”; in psychoanalysis, “free association”; in CBT and REBT, identifying and “interrupting the pathogenic thought”; in existential-humanistic therapy and ACT, “radical acceptance” of what’s so. 

This “getting in touch with” is also the first step in becoming more empathic, and so highly relevant to empathy training. One has to be in touch with one’s own experiences in order to appreciate how the other person shows up in one’s vicarious experiences of that other person. In short, empathy is a common factor shared by virtually all approaches to talk therapy. 

The problem is that grouping empathy with “common factors” has become a way of dismissing empathy. All the interventions share empathy. It occurs on all sides of the multi-dimensional equation, and so empathy itself cancels out. Empathy falls out of the equation—and out of the discussion. 

I suggest an alternative point of view.

What if empathy were the very process that was creating the benefit—and the very equation itself—for each of these supposedly distinct interventions? What if empathy were the very thing that was creating the clearing for EMDR, ACT, and so on, to be effective in the person’s shifting out of stuckness, attachment to suffering, emotional disregulation, self-defeating behavior, or repetitive enactment? 

What if empathy was not the idle wheel, falling out of the equation, but the drive shaft? What if the techniques of CBT, DBT, ACT, EMDR, and so on, were themselves so much formal scaffolding, providing a ritual framework for the dynamics of the empathic relatedness to have its effect? 

Following the baton or dancing light in EMDR would be something to keep the client distracted while he was verbally expressing his experience of the trauma into the gracious listening of the therapist. 

Filling out the paperwork, the surveys, and the homework of CBT would be so much busy work designed to keep the client’s mind off of his anxiety and depression for long enough for the therapist’s empathic responses to the client’s issues to have an impact. 

The breathing in and out of mindfulness, literally a metaphor for empathy as oxygen for the soul, would be a useful holding pattern enabling the client to get in touch with his experience so he can communicate it to the therapist and be “gotten” for who he is as the possibility of radical acceptance in empathic understanding. 

The “tough love” of DBT and the group skills back-and-forth would be a useful distraction for the client’s intolerable emotions until the therapist was either able to get it right with his empathic interpretation or the client exhausted the payer’s twelve approved sessions. Then, in every case, the empathic exchange as it occurs in the conversation between therapist and the client would be what is making the difference. 

More work is definitely needed on this hypothesis. Nor is it likely to be an “either/or” matter. CBT’s “trigger log,” “dysfunctional thinking report,” and “daily thought record,” are useful exercises. Highly useful. It is just that, absent empathy, the CBT process is indistinguishable from dental work—and then the client does not even do the “homework.” What would an evidence-based comparison between empathic and alternative interventions even look like? 

The client comes in, and the therapist greets him with a standard human response, using all her abilities to understand and grasp that with which the other person is struggling. Is one supposed to compare being empathic with being rude? With being hard-hearted? With being confrontational? With misunderstanding the other person? With being stone-faced and unemotional? All of these are possibilities. The stone-faced option has actually been tried, but not with adults presenting for therapy. Presumably because it would be a short session. The adults would not stand for it, and most (possibly excepting the masochistic) would get up and walk out. 

However, it has been tried with infants in the context of attachment studies. When infants are briefly presented with a “still face,” a blank face from which emotion has been removed on the part of care-takers, who are usually warm and welcoming, the infants become noticeably upset. Some start to fuss; others, to cry. So do most people, whether in personal or experimental situations such as being on “candid camera.” Babies and children of tender age are people, too, and I suggest that their response is an example of a standard human one, albeit without any grammatical use of language, and typical of what one might expect from adults.

What is clear is that an overwhelming number and diversity of psychotherapy approaches engage in the use of empathy. This is so even when these interventions allow empathy subsequently to fall out of the equation as a “common factor.” 

Even if the approach in question devalues empathy as a narrow psychological mechanism, it has to endorse its use, because when empathy is absent, generally, positive outcomes are also absent. Those few interventions that devalue empathy—electro shock therapy (ECT), shaming, jail, capital punishment, collective shunning—begin by paying it rhetorical lip service. The result? The amount of aggregated experience that indicates that empathy is an effective intervention is vast and arguably sufficient to overcome any hidden, confounding variables. 

Judgments based on clinical practice, tacit knowledge, and deep life experience will continue to have a essential role; however, these need to be qualified by the best available evidence. As noted, the issue is that  there are some interventions such as penicillin and using a parachute when jumping out of an airplane that seem to limit or even defy the gold standard. It would be unethical not to give someone penicillin if they were infected with an infection serious enough to require such treatment, since it is a matter of historical accident that penicillin was invented prior to the “evidence based” paradigm shift. And, as regards using a parachute, that case is the reduction to absurdity of not using common sense as a criteria in deciding what counts as evidence. What is going on here? The answer bears repeating for emphasis: The effect size is so large that it outweights and overwhelms any hidden confounding factors and so rises to the level of evidence (without quotation marks). [xvii]

The “effect size” is a function of the facts—the evidence—that there are so many examples and so much experience that penicillin works—that parachutes work—that the risk of one’s over-looking some other confounding variable is vanishingly small. It really was the penicillin, not (say) the effects of the alignmnet of the planets hidden behind the penicillin.

Likewise, with empathy. The use of empathy in human relations is demonstrably so effective in the medical and behavioral health world in question that not to apply empathy would be like not prescribing antibiotics against a bacterial infection. Empathy has been effective in shifting the suffering and transforming the psychic pain throughout history. The criticism of empathy has usually been that it results in burnout and compassion fatigue. But penicillin, too, has to be properly dosed, and people allergic to it excluded, or the results will be unpredictable. 

In conclusion, the critical path lies through empathy training: empathy is not an on-off switch but a dial/tuner that requires training to get it just right. Examples of peer-reviewed publications exist in which empathy was shown to be effective (in comparison with less empathy) in correlating with favorable outcomes in diabetes, cholesterol, and the common cold (?!) and are cited in the bibliography (and will be further engaged in Chapter Six of Empathy Lessons).[xviii] Expect this work to expand and gain traction in other areas such as psychiatry and cognitive behavioral therapy. 

In short, not to begin with empathy would be like jumping out of the airplane without a parachute or not providing penicillin when the infection was bacterial. If you are jumping out of an airplane, use a parachute; if engaging with struggling, suffering humans, use empathy. 


[i] W.R. Miller, R.G. Benefield, J.S. Tonigen. (1993). Enhancing motivation for change in problem drinking: a controlled comparison of two therapist styles, Journal of Consultative Clinical Psychology, June; 61 (3): 455-61: 455. 

[ii] Jay S. Coke, Gregory Batson, Katherine McDavis. (1978). Empathic mediation of helping: A two-stage modelJournal of Personality and Social Psychology 36(7):752–766. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.36.7.752; Mark H. Davis, Laura Conklin, Amy Smith, Carol Luce. (1996). Effect of perspective taking on the cognitive representation of persons: A merging of self and other, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 70(4), Apr 1996: 713–726.

[iii] Ofer Golan and Simon Baron-Cohen. (2006). Systemizing empathy: Teaching adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism to recognize complex emotions using interactive multimedia, Development and Psychopathology 18, 2006: 591–617. DOI: 10.10170S0954579406060305; J. Hadwin, S. Baron-Cohen, P. Howlin, and K. Hill. (1997). Does teaching theory of mind have an effect on the ability to develop conversation in children with autism? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 27: 519–537. DOI:10.1023/A:102582600 9731.

[iv] Geir Smedslund, Rigmor C. Berg, Karianne T. Hammerstrom, Asbjorn Steiro, Kari A Leiknes, Helene M Dahl, Kjetil Karlsen. (2011). Motivation interviewing for substance abuse, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, May 11, 2011, Issue 5: CD 008063. DOI: 10.1002/12651858.CD008063.pub2.

[v] C.T. Ozcan, F. Oflaz, B. Bakir. (2012). The effect of a structured empathy course on the students of a medical and a nursing school, International Nursing Review, Vol. 59, Issue 4, December 2012: 532–538. DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-7657.2012.01019.x.

[vi] Scott Brunero, Scott Lamont, Melissa Coates. (2010). A Review of empathy education in nursing, Nursing Inquiry: Vol. 17, Issue 1, March 2010: 65–74. 

[vii] M. Hojat, M. J. Vergate, K. Maxwell, G. Brainard, S. K. Herrine, G.A. Isenberg. (2009). The devil is in the third year: A Longitudinal study of erosion of empathy in medical school, Academic Medicine, Vol. 84 (9): 1182–1191. 

[viii] E.V. Pecukonis. (1990). A cognitive/affective empathy training program as a function of ego development in aggressive adolescent females, Adolescence, Vol. 25: 59–76.

[ix] Mark E. Therrien. (1979). Evaluating empathy skill training for parents, Social Work, Vol. 24, no. 5 (Sep 1979): 417–19.

[x] Tony Chiu, Ming Lam, Klodiana Kolomitro, Flanny C. Alamparambil. (2011). Empathy training: Methods, evaluation practices, and validity, Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, Vol. 7, No. 16: 162–200. 

[xi] J..J. Angera and E. Long. (2006). Qualitative and quantitative evaluations of an empathy training program for couples in marriage and romantic relationship, Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, Vol. 5(1): 1–26.

[xii] PBS staff reporter. (2013). Using babies to decrease aggression and prevent bullying. PBS News Hour: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/using-babies-to-decrease-aggression-prevent-bullying/

[xiii] PBS staff reporter 2013.

[xiv] Mary Gordon. (2005). The Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child. New York/Toronto: The Experiment (Thomas Allen Publishers): 250–256.

[xv] Helen Riess. (2013). The power of empathy, TEDxMiddlebury: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=baHrcC8B4WM [checked on March 23, 2017]. See also: John M. Kelley, Gordon Kraft-Todd, Lidia Schapira, Joe Kossowsky, Helen Riess. (2014). The influence of the patient-clinician relationship on healthcare outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, PLOS, Vol. 9, No. 4 | e94207: 1–7 Helen Riess, John M. Kelley, Robert W. Bailey, Emily J. Dunn, and Margot Phillips. (2012). Empathy training for resident physicians: A randomized controlled trial of a neuroscience-informed curriculum, Journal General Internal Medicine. 2012 Oct; Vol. 27(10): 1280–1286. DOI: 10.1007/s11606-012-2063-z.

[xvi] Jerome D. Frank and Julia B. Frank. (1981). Persuasion and Healing: A Comparative Study of Psychotherapy. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1991. I express appreciation to Danny Levine, MD, for calling my attention to this outstanding contribution from the Franks. Also see my Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery (2015) for a critique of the psychopharmacological (psychiatric) approach in chapter three “Plato, Not Prozac!” (a title that I borrow from Lou Marinoff (2000), who I hereby acknowledge for his contribution). 

[xvii] Howick 2011: 5, 11.

[xviii] Howick 2011; M. Hojat et al, 2011; John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al 2014); David P. Rakel, Theresa J. Hoeft, Bruce P. Barrett, Betty A. Chewning, Benjamin M. Craig, and Min Niu. (2009). Practitioner empathy and the Duration of the common cold, Family Medicine 41(7): 494–501.

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

Empathy is good for your health and well-being (The evidence)

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

outcomes. What is especially interesting is that some of these evidence-based studies specifically exclude psychiatric disorders and include mainline 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.

Biology has got us humans in a bind, since the biology 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.

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

The case of Dr Know-it-all: Empathy gives us our humanity

You do not need a philosopher to tell you what empathy is. What then do you need? How about a folktale, a fairy tale, a narrative, a Märchen?

Rather than start with a definition of empathy, my proposal is to start by telling a couple of stories, in which empathy (and its breakdown) plays a crucial role. Both stories are anonymous folktales from the collection edited by the Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The distilled wisdom of the ages accumulated in traditional anonymous narratives will do nicely. Both stories include a significant amount of humor, underscoring that humor and empathy are closely related (on humor and creating a community see also Ted Cohen’s book Jokes (1999)). 

How so? In both humor and empathy one crosses the boundary between self and other while preserving that boundary. In both humor and empathy one builds a community, even if only of two people, by transiently, temporarily weakening the boundary between self and other, then reestablishing it. In the case of humor, the boundary crossing is loaded with an element of aggression, violation of community standards, or sexuality—the source of the tension that is released in laughter—whereas with empathy proper the boundary is traversed with a respectful acknowledgement and communication of mutual humanity, whether as high spirits, suffering, or community expanding affinity and affection. 

I hasten to add that while the philosopher does not necessarily have a better mastery of empathy than any parent, teacher, doctor, nurse, first responder, therapist, flight attendant, business person with customers, professional with clients, and so on, the philosopher is useful—and at times indispensable—in clarifying distinctions, analyzing concepts, and disentangling misunderstandings about empathy. 

Thus, the fairy tale (Märchen) of Doctor Know-it-all is a perfect place to start a philosophical inquiry into 

Dr Know-it-all pointing in his picture book.
Image credit:
John Thomas Smith / Wellcome V0020405.jpg (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0)

empathy. An uneducated, illiterate, hungry peasant named “Herr Crabb” delivers a load of wood to a doctor.[1] Crabb observes the doctor eating a sumptuous lunch; and Crabb asks him how he (Crabb) might improve his station by becoming a doctor. The doctor tells him to sell his ox and cart and buy an ABC book, buy a fine suit of clothes, and put a sign in front of his hovel that says “Dr Know-it-All.” (Note that the English “Know-it-all” is a translation of the German “allwissend,” which is also the standard translation of the divine attribute “omniscient.”) 

Scene two: thieves steal the treasure from the rich noble lord of the manor on the hill. Dr Know-it-all is called in to consult on the case, solve the crime, and recover the treasure. 

Now getting a good meal is a recurring theme in this story, and Crabb insists on beginning the consulting engagement by coming to dinner. The nobleman, Crabb, and Crabb’s wife, sit down to a fine three-course meal served by the nobleman’s servants. The first servant brings in the first covered dish, and Crabb says, “That is the first.” Likewise with the other two courses: “That is the second” and “That is the third.” 

Now the servants are starting to get worried, because, as is sometimes the case with such crimes, the theft was an inside job, and the servants were ones who did it. “This Crabb guy seems to be onto us,” say the servants to one another between courses. Meanwhile, the nobleman challenges Crabb to say what is under the third covered dish, testing Crabb’s credential as Dr Know-it-all. Of course, Crabb has no idea, and in frustration, he gestures as if to slap himself in the head and says his own name “Oh, Crabb!” Right! The meal is of crab cakes. 

Now the servants are really worried—this guy really does know-it-all. The servants create a pretext to take Crabb aside and confess their theft to him, telling him that they will tell him where the treasure is hidden and even give him an extra fee in addition if only he does not identify them as the culprits. An agreement is reached. Crabb shows the lord where his treasure is hidden, collects ample fees from all sides, does not betray the servants, who, after all, are fellow suffers of social injustice like Crabb himself, resulting in the latter’s becoming rich and famous. By the end of the story, living into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his performance catches up with his reputation, Crabb does indeed become Dr Know-it-all. 

This is the perfect narrative with which to begin an engagement with a group of philosophers and thinkers who propose answers about the core issues in the study of empathy. One could let one’s scholarly egoism result in a narcissistic injury; but a better response would be self-depreciating humor. The occupational hazard of over-intellectualization looms large whenever philosophers sharpen the cutting edge of their analytic tools. And there is nothing wrong with that as such, but the approach does have its risks and constraints. 

Philosophically speaking, the peasant Herr Crabb, Dr Know-it-all, is the personification of our Socratic ignorance. Socrates’ fame was assured when the Oracle at Delphi—a kind of latter day Wikileaks—proclaimed him as the wisest person in the world, because he acknowledged (i.e., knew) that he did not know.  

Socrates was a commitment to pure inquiry; and that has remained a valid approach to philosophizing in such thinkers as Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Hume in his skeptical phase, and the Kant of the transcendental dialectic. Nevertheless, the commitment of this review is to provide both questions and answers about empathy, in a Socratic spirit, even if those answers then become the basis for further debate, argument, and inquiry.

Meanwhile, the story of Dr Know-it-all is meant to be told with a totally strait face. Notwithstanding the relatively primitive state of medicine in 1804, one still had to go to the university, even if only the better to understand how the planets influenced disease as in influenza. Nevertheless, it is a depreciating and mocking guidance that the doctor gives in the opening scene to the peasant to sell his ox and get a sign that says “Dr Know-it-all.” The peasant follows the advice.

This is the first empathic encounter in the story. Crabb brings the mind of a beginner to the relationship. In a “once upon a time” moment, this is Crabb’s Socratic ignorance, though of course the story does not use such language. Crabb often seems to be thinking about his next meal, and, in that limited sense, he has a desire—to be well fed like the ruling class. However, in a deeper sense, Crabb is without desire and without memory. That is empathy lesson number one in this story: bring the innocence of a beginner’s mind to one’s relationships. That is the readiness assessment for empathy: be open to possibility, no matter how unlikely or counter-intuitive.

Next, in a series of seeming coincidences, Crabb makes simple, ambiguous statements such as: “That is the first one,” “That is the second one,” and so on. These statements become ambiguous Gestalt figures like the famous duck-rabbit, which spontaneously reverses between one figure and another, depending on one’s perspective. Is it a duck or is it a rabbit? (For an image of the duck-rabbit see Wittgenstein 1951: 194 (or Google it).) Likewise, in the folktale, does the statement refer to the dish of food being served or to the answer to the discussion question, who is the thief? Yes.

This is top-down cognitive empathy; take a walk in the other person’s shoes. The servants employ top down empathy—imagining that they are the consultant(s) brought in to solve the mystery of the missing treasure, taking Crabb’s perspective, putting themselves in his shoes. But their empathy misfires. It doesn’t work. Instead of taking a walk with the other person’s personality—Crabb is after all a poor peasant like the servants (but they do not necessarily know that)—they project their own issue onto Crabb.

Their issue? The servants know who are the thieves and they have one thought too many about it. They have guilty consciences. Though they are hungry peasants in their own way, they identify with the values of the dominant class. When authentic human relatedness misfires, then one gets the psychological mechanism of projection. The thieves guiltily project their knowledge onto Crabb. They imagine that Crabb knows their secret. Here the servants’ empathy is in breakdown. The readers learn about empathy by means of its misfiring, breaking down, going astray, and failing. 

Taking a step back, the fundamental empathic moment is so simple as to be hidden in plain view. Crabb’s empathy tells him what the servants are experiencing. Fear. They are afraid. If Crabb identifies them as the thieves, they will be hanged. The servants actually say that to Crabb in the story. 

Note this is a world circa 1804 in Central Europe, in which there is a different set of rules for judging servants and noblemen. When a nobleman steals, it is called rent, taxation, or user fees. When the servants steal, it is a hanging offense. Theft remains a transgression, so the treasure must be returned. But when the hungry steal to eat, it is arguably a much less serious offense if not an actual entitlement. “Cast not the first stone: go—and sin no more.”

So the story also belongs to a type in which the servant outwits the master, a type of which The Marriage of Figaro is perhaps the most famous example. (See also the narrative approach of Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There, a major motion picture that features Peter Sellers as a naive gardener educated only by watching TV.) In our narrative, integrity is restored at multiple levels. The treasure is returned, the peasant Crabb and his wife acquire the means to eat well going forward, and the servants escape an unfair punishment.

This highly subversive message must be wrappered in humor, so as not to so threaten the prevailing social hierarchy or social injustice of rigid class distinctions with violent revolution. Getting the message out overrides transforming the social order, a perhaps unrealistic expectation in the listening of the folk audience. Crabb’s empathy tells him what the servants are experiencing; his compassion tells him what to do about it—not identify the servants as the perpetrators. I do so like a happy ending, rare though those be.

The case of the young man lacking empathy

The second fairy tale is a kind of thought experiment, a condition contrary to fact. What would be the case if someone completely lacked the capacity for empathy—and how would one acquire such a capacity? 

“The story of the youth who set forth to learn fear” is about a young man who is such a simpleton that he does not even experience fear.[2] It is a long and intricate story. I simplify. The folktale is a ghost story. In the story, as people are telling ghost stories, they say “it made me shudder”—a visceral sensation of “goose bumps” in German the onomatopoeic “grüseln.” This simpleton says: “I wish I knew what that was—shuddering. It sounds interesting, maybe I could make a career out of it.” His poor father is now in despair, thinking, “What am I going to do with this one?” Being charitable, we might say nothing is wrong with this young man, the protagonist in the story, but there is definitely something missing. 

The father is agreeable. He apprentices the youth out to the local sexton to teach him fear. The sexton tries to scare him by dressing up in a sheet as a ghost at midnight, but the sexton breaks his leg when the youth is not scared and fights back. Thus, the youth is exiled, going on an educational journey into the world to learn visceral fear—shuddering. Having no idea what fear is, he volunteers to spend three nights in the haunted castle, from which no visitor has ever, ever returned alive. 

The youth is a simpleton, but one might say, no fool. He takes with him, a knife, a turning lathe with vice grip, and a fire, the three things one is likely to need in case of an emergency. The first night he is confronted by dogs and cats with red-hot chains—the beasts of hell. He uses the knife to dispatch them. The second night he is confronted by fragmentation and dismemberment. Disconnected arms, legs, and heads fall down the chimney, and the zombie-like, quasi-men propose a game of bowling. But the heads, being elliptical, do not roll well. Fearless as usual, he uses the turning lathe to make well-rounded bowling balls, and all enjoy the game. 

All the while, the youth is obsessively complaining: “I wish I knew what was shuddering. I wish I could shudder.” On the third night, pallbearers bring in a coffin with the dead body of his cousin. In a scene that authentically arouses the reader’s shuddering, the youth gets into bed with the corpse to warm it up. He succeeds. The corpse comes alive, and, not behaving in a friendly way, threatens to strangle him. But the youth is as strong as he is simple. He overpowers it. Then the old spirit appears, the old man in a long, white beard appears. They struggle. Though consistently depicted as a simpleton, the youth has a breakthrough in his intelligence. Instead of using the physical strength that has served him up until now, the youth cleverly catches the old one’s beard in the vice grip; and he thrashes him until the latter surrenders. The youth wins, and the old spirit shows the youth the treasure hard-to-attain, one third of which goes to the king, one third to the poor, and he gets to keep one third. He also gets the hand of the princess in marriage. 

However, the youth has still not learned to shudder. Fear not! On the morning after his wedding night, the chambermaid hears of his persisting complaint from his wife. The chambermaid asserts that the problem is easily fixed. She takes the decorative bowl of gold fish in cold water and throws it on him, as he lies in bed still asleep. The little fish flop around. He awakes. He gets it: Goose bumps. “At last I understand shuddering!” 

Fear is perhaps the most primordial and basic emotion. The flight/fight response is a function of the basic biological response of the organism to situations that threaten the integrity of our creaturely existence. The amygdala is activated, adrenalin (norepinephrine) pours into the blood stream, a visceral state of arousal of the body is mobilized that includes increased heart beat, rapid pulse, enhanced startle response, hair standing on end, and a withdrawal of blood from the surface of the skin that results in “goose bumps.” It is a thought experiment similar to riding on a beam of light, going light speed, to imagine a person who does not experience fear in the face of the fearful. Such a thought experiment might not require as much equipment as riding on a beam of light, but, in any case, it is just as rare.

However, no sooner did I pen these words, then I came across a case, in which an individual was identified who did not experience what we would conventionally call “fear.”[3]

As usual, the real world is more complex than one’s thought experiments. It turns out that the individual in question (SM-046) does experience fear in certain situations, but much less so than most “normal” people, so-called “neurotypicals.” The subjective experience of suffocation upon inhaling carbon dioxide in a controlled setting did indeed arouse panic (fear) in her. Panic, fear—close enough? 

A further analysis is required to determine what parts of the interpersonal world—personal space, trust of other people, social skills—are impacted (and by how much) by damage to the amygdala. In no sense is SM “less human”; but there is something missing from her empathic repertoire. This missing capacity for fear seems to diminish her social skills and ability to relate. She does not experience vulnerability in situations that are dangerous or risky when most other people would do so, which could be problematic in avoiding injury due to everyday hazards. In that sense, she may actually resemble the simpleton-hero in the folktale, who is so impervious to what others would experience as fearsome or scary that he naively acts courageously and triumphs in the face of long odds against success. 

SM does not spend three nights in a haunted castle, so her experiences cannot be compared to those of the protagonist in the folktale. Yet, in any case, physiological fear becomes a symbol of empathic, struggling humanity and its quest for self-knowledge. 

The hero-simpleton tries so hard to experience fear that he is effectively defended against his own emotional life. It is ironic that the simpleton is guilty of over-intellectualizing, usually an occupational hazard of philosophers. The youth imagines that someone can tell him in a form of words what is fear as shuddering, visceral goose bumps.

This lack of feeling points to an underlying deficiency in the capability to empathize. Today we might say that this youth is “on the spectrum”—the autistic spectrum—in that he is emotionally isolated and struggles with the reciprocal communication of affect. In short, the youth has an empathy deficit. 

As in all classic folktales, the youth has to go forth on a journey of exploration of both the world and of himself. He becomes a traveller on the road of life, which is the narrative of his emotional misadventures to recover his empathy—and his affective life—and become a complete human being. 

This must be emphasized. The recovery of feelings is the recovery of his humanity. The youth’s journey into the world can be described in many way; but I urge that it is a journey to recover his humanity in the form of experiencing the full range of human emotions in himself and others, the basic paradigm of which is fear and the basic capacity for which is empathy. 

The youth’s recovery of his ability to shudder, his emotions, and his empathy unfold as a running joke. After each increasingly creepy encounter with something most people describe as fearful, he complains, “I wish I could shudder.” This is repeated a dozen times just to make sure the audience gets the point. 

As noted, the folktale, the Märchen, is a ghost story, to be told on dark October nights around Halloween. The empathy of the audience is aroused by increasingly gruesome images of dismembered bodies. The audience definitely shudders, getting the creeps, but not the protagonist. Meanwhile, the audience is taken through the three stages of overcoming over-intellectualization, overcoming resistance to empathy, and recovering his full humanity in a rich emotional life. 

We retell the story, emphasizing the empathic and emotional aspects.

In the first stage of recovering one’s empathy, one must descend into the hell of one’s own lack of integrity and inauthenticities to regain access to and expand one’s humanity. The dogs and cats with red-hot collars and chains are images from hell. The assignment? One has to descend into the hell of one’s empathy breakdowns, misfirings, inauthenticities, blind spots, self-deceptions, and failures, in order to break through the refiner’s fire of self-inquiry with renewed commitment to empathy, relatedness, and community. One must clean up one’s own act, restoring integrity where it is missing in one’s own actions before carrying empathy forward to others; otherwise the attempt to recover and expand empathy is like putting butter cream frosting on a mud pie. It doesn’t work. 

However, even if one cleans up one’s act, acknowledges one’s blind spots and inauthenticities, and commits to empathic relatedness, the risks of failure are significant. That one is committed to relating empathically can leave one vulnerable to the risks of burn out, compassion fatigue, or emotional fragmentation. 

The second night in the castle is filled with images of dismemberment. The youth’s self is vulnerable to fragmentation.

Images of fragmentation: Illustration by Otto Ubbelohde to the fairy tale The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was (public domain)

None of the dismembered body parts matter to the youth in the way they would matter to an affectively, emotionally whole person. Ghouls and living corpses surround him, but, ontologically speaking, he is the one who is an emotional zombie. Without empathy, the individual is unrelated and isolated—emotionally dead. 

The guidance of the folktale is to be persistent. Set limits with courage and humor. The youth rounds the egg-shaped heads in his turning lathe, the better to play at bowling with the now-rounded heads and the dismembered legs as pins. It works. The youth’s good sense of humor and fellow feeling serve him well in relating empathically to what would otherwise be a harrowing encounter with emotional fragmentation. The integrity of the self is sustained and expanded. Everyone has fun, and the ghouls depart with the body parts at the end of the game. 

On the third night, in a scene that is really quite creepy (and in which the audience, if not the youth, learns shuddering), the coffin of his dead cousin is delivered. The youth gets into bed with the cold corpse of his cousin, charitable lad that he is, in order to warm it up—and, even more uncanny, succeeds in awaking it! 

The emotions are not pleasant that have long lain dormant and “dead” and are brought back to life. The person is at risk of choking on them due to their intensity. Anger and narcissistic rage are the order of the day. The awakened corpse tries to strangle the youth, but the youth overpowers it using physical strength. 

The old spirit, the old man with the long, white beard, shows up for the final struggle. The simpleton youth has a breakthrough in his intelligence. He cleverly catches the old man’s beard in his vice grip and starts wailing on him. 

As noted, the old spirit yields, and, delivers the treasure-hard-to-attain—the hidden gold and the hand of the princess in marriage. But, though the missing empathy ought to have been recovered by now, for rhetorical reasons, the story continues in describing the youth as still complaining about not yet having learned how to shudder. The climax is complete; the dénouement is at hand. 

The individual cannot recover his empathy—or his humanity—on his own. The other is required. A relationship with the other is indispensable. The youth has raised the curse from the haunted castle and won the hand of the fair princess, and he stops trying to shudder. That is key: he finally stops trying. He stops thinking about it—over-intellectualizing. He has a passive overcoming, letting matters be. Then the other teaches him shuddering at the first available opportunity.

The wife’s chambermaid teaches him shuddering in a pun that cleverly masks the physical and sexual innuendo, throwing the cold water and flopping gold fish, causing goose bumps, a visceral experience hard to put into words.

Now the youth is finally a whole, complete human being. The absence of the ability to shudder becomes a symbol for the absence of empathy, the ability to communicate affectively. This youth had no feelings—not even fear. Thus, in this story, in contrast to Dr Know-it-all, we are dealing with bottom up, affective empathy. The absence of the emotion of fear is an extreme paradigm, a negative ideal case, of an absence of the underlying, bottom up capacity for empathy. 

Taking the interpretation up a level, the youth is ontologically cut off from the community, who share emotions empathically. Life is disclosed and matters to members of the community based on their affects and emotions. 

In the narrative, empathy becomes conspicuous by its absence. This absence of empathy is equivalent to the absence of the individual’s humanity. It is only after the youth undertakes a kind of training program in recovering his empathy—and his humanity—by descending into the hell of his own blind spots and inauthenticities that he is able to experience the full range of human emotions—and, ending with a laugh, shuddering.

With the assimilation of these two pre-ontological documents, we turn to the less humorous but equally significant task of defining different methods and approaches to understanding and applying empathy. The philosophy of empathy engages with diverse philosophical methods that provide access to it. 


[1] Anonymous. (1804). Dr Know-it-all, The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, eds., trs. Margaret Hunt and James Stern. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972/1994: 456–457; translation modified.

[2] Anonymous. (1804). “The story of the youth who set forth to learn fear,” The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, eds., trs. Margaret Hunt and James Stern. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972/1994: 29–38; translation modified. This is a complete reworking of Lou Agosta. (1980). The recovery of feelings in a folktale, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980: 287–297.

[3] See: R. Adolphs, D. Tranel, H. Damasio, A. Damasio. (1994). Impaired recognition of emotion in facial expressions following bilateral damage to the human amygdala, Nature. 372 (6507): 669–72. DOI: 10.1038/372669a0. 

Image credit: Dr Know-it-all: Creative Commons: An old man in a top hat sitting in a wooden cart with wheels Wellcome V0020405.jpg 

Image Credit: Otto Ubbelohde (artist) – Images of fragmentation: Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zu lernen (Public Domain)

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