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Three books on empathy reviewed: The good, the bad, and the ugly

The first empathy book reviewed here is very good indeed. William Miller’s Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding  (Wipf and Stock, 114pp, ListeningWellEmpathicUnderstandingCoverArt($18US)) is a short book. Admirably concise. My short review is that, as I am author of three academic and one “how to” book(s) on empathy, this is the book that I wish I had written.

Listening Well contains the distilled wisdom of Miller’s several decades of practicing listening as the royal road to expanding empathy. Listening Well is a “how to” book, but the author is adamant that such a skill lives and flourishes in the context of a commitment to being empathic. (I hasten to add that, though Miller’s is the book I wish I had written, my own publications on empathy are significant contributions, and I shamelessly urge the reader to get them on the short list, too.)

Being with the other person without judgments, labels, categories, diagnoses, evaluations, and so on, is what empathy is about most authentically. It is not that such assessments do not occur. They do, but they almost always get in the way. Listening Well is way too short to be a textbook, but I can see it as being useful in a workshop, seminar, or as exercises in a class.

In case you are unaware of William Miller’s background, he is the innovator behind Motivational Interviewing. Listening well – the practice, not just the title of the book – is at the heart of this approach. In turn, the practice of listening well is based on empathic understanding. Miller is explicit in invoking the work of Carl Rogers (1902 – 1987) Rogers was one of the founders of humanistic psychology, and Rogers’s person-centered psychotherapy provides the foundation for this results-oriented intervention.

Cris Beam is a would-be “bad girl,” who has written a very good book. In a world of constrained, limited empathy, the empathic person is a non-conformist. Beam is one of those, too, and succeeds in sustaining a nuanced skepticism about the alternatingIFeelYouCoverArt hype and over-valuation of empathy over against those who summarily dismiss it. Most ambivalently, she calls out the corporate infatuation with empathy. I paraphrase the corporate approach: Take a walk in the other person’s shoes in order to sell them another pair.

In Beam’s book I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy (Houghton Mifflin, 251 pp. ($26 US$)), Cris Beam makes empathy present. She brings forth empathy her engagement with difficult cases that challenge our empathy, including her own conflicts. In the process of struggling with, against, and for empathy, she succeeds in bringing forth empathy and making empathy present for the reader. From an empathic point of view, I can think of no higher praise.

It gets personal. Beam reports that she is a survivor of a floridly psychotic mother and a father who, at least temporarily (and probably to save himself), abandoned Cris to her fate with that woman. As a teenager, Beam escapes to her father and his second marriage only to be rejected when she “comes out” as a lesbian some years later. Fast forward to Beam’s own second marriage [both to women].

Beam’s partner announces that the partner (at that time a “she”) is committed to transitioning to becoming a man. Beam decides to support her (becoming him) and sticks with it through the top surgery, administering the testosterone shots. The partner tells Beam: “I will love you always [regardless of my gender].” Beam decides to believe the partner. (See what I mean? You can’t make this stuff up.)

 Nor is this a softball review, and I decisively disagree with Beam when she says that empathy is “mutual vulnerability” and approvingly quotes André Keet: “there are no neat boundaries between victim, perpetrators, beneficiaries, and bystanders …” (p. 191). While such a statement is descriptively accurate, once the father walks, leaving the psychotic mother and child behind, the commitment of empathy is to respect boundaries and (re)establish them when the boundaries have broken down or been violated.

Empathy is all about boundaries, and Beam, like so many of us, has her share of struggles with them. No easy answers here. But one final thought as my personal response to Beam’s thought provoking and inspiring work on empathy. We may usefully consider the poet Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.” I add: There is a gate in the fence, and over the gate is written the word “Empathy.”

The third empathy book, The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy (Routledge, 410pp, $245 US$), has a truly ugly hardcover price of $151 even after the Amazon discount as publishers continue to respond to economic pressures by

Cover Art: The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy

Cover Art: The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Empathy

squeezing the life out of traditional print books that one can hold in one’s hand. The recommendation? Have the library order a copy (the paperback is $54.95, a better price, but nothing to write home about).

I have read, reviewed, and sometimes struggled, not only with the tangled history of empathy from David Hume to mindreading to mirror neurons, but with all thirty-three articles as a would-be empathic contribution for those who come after me. In many cases, I resonated empathically with the article. Bringing a rigorous and critical empathy to the article based on my life and experiences, sometimes the article “clicked,” i.e., worked for me. In other cases, I had to activate “top down” empathy, trying to create a context for a conversation, in which all I can otherwise see is an effort to maximize the number of stipulations that can be made to dance on the head of a pin—the pin being “empathy” (seems like about two dozen).

In every case, I try to be charitable; but in some cases the “empathy meter” goes in the direction of “tough love.” In one or two cases, I acknowledge my empathy breaks down completely in the face of academic over-intellectualization—an obvious occupational hazard in philosophy, but one that needs to be firmly contained in an engagement with a critical and rigorous empathy—and I simply recommend hitting the delete button—or a rewrite from scratch.

A “Handbook” promises to be a comprehensive engagement with the issues. So it is with deep regret, that I call out the fundamental incompletenesses. Nothing on education. Philosophers are not educators? Socrates was not a teacher? Mary Gordon’s program The Roots of Empathy (also the name of her book) includes bringing a baby into the grammar school classroom. Too developmental? Too psychological? The Philosophical Baby (Gopnik et al 2009)?

Also missing is the alternative point of view. The neurohype around mirror neurons is well represented; but what about the alternative point of view that such an entity as a mirror neuron does not even exist in humans and that the neurological infrastructure has a different configuration.[1]

The evolutionary context of empathy is considered; but missed are the role of the human mother-child matrix in the development of affective empathy, the empathizing effect of female sexual selection on male aggression, and the development of perspective taking in group selection in empathy as a “cheater detection system” and “empathic cruelty.” Empathy and morals are well represented; but little about social justice, overcoming prejudice, building bridges between disparate individuals and communities, or the tough related issues.

I am just getting warmed up here. Other incompletenesses are more fundamental—methodological. Empathy is not just the object of the inquiry, but it also needs to be the subject of the inquiry. We get our humanity from the other individual—and the other’s artistic expressions and social contributions.

This is subtle; so let me give an example. Expand your empathy: go to the art museum. Deepen your empathy: attend the symphony. Broaden your empathy: study a foreign culture or indigenous community. Stretch your empathy: read literary fiction. The engagement with aesthetics expands, trains, and develops our empathy; likewise, with the engagement with the other person. How does that work? The contributors seem not to have considered the possibility.

Instead empathy is on the defensive in too many places in the Handbook under review. Empathy is not represented as something of value that needs no apology and is worthy—along with (say) compassion and motherhood—of active promotion and expansion as a benefit to the community. Strangely enough, the breakdowns, failures, and misfirings of empathy—emotional contagion, conformity, projection, and communications lost in translation—are mistaken for empathy itself as if empathy could not misfire or go astray.

Nevertheless, bright spots appear. As Shoemaker points out in his article, the solution to a so-called parochial empathy that is limited to the “in group” is empathy itself – expanded empathy. Expand the boundaries of the community to be inclusive of those previously excluded. No doubt, easier said than done, but that is not a limitation of empathy itself, but of our need for expanded training and practice of empathy.  

The battle is joined. Dan Zahavi, an otherwise impeccable and astute phenomenologist, enters into apologetic worrying about the conundrum: Can we really ever appreciate, understand, empathize with another person’s experience without having had a similar experience [or words to that effect]? Zahavi makes good use of Max Scheler to show that we can. With the exception of Jenefer Robinson (on “Empathy in music”), what is not called out (or even hinted at) is that the encounter with the other person, art, music, and literature enhances and expands our empathy.

 In a world of limited empathy, the empathic person is a nonconformist. I wish I could write this Handbook is overflowing with nonconformists. Happily there are some and they produce several excellent articles—Zahavi, Gallagher, Ickes, Denham, Debes, Hollan, and John (Eileen); but it is otherwise filled with over-intellectualization, stipulations, neurohype, inaccurate phenomenological descriptions (mostly by the neuro-philosophers, not the phenomenologists), and tortured conceptual distinctions lacking in empathy. Seven out of thirty-three is a modest harvest.

One expects a Handbook on empathy would make empathy present for the reader. In the long, dreary march through 397 pages, thirty-three articles, I thirsted for it. Eileen John comes closest to doing so, and she is able to marshal the resources of empathy in the context of literature to help her get over what is admittedly a high bar. The scandal of this Handbook is that amid so many conceptual distinctions relating to empathy, empathy itself—empathy as a presence in the encounter with the reader—goes missing except in this one out of thirty-three articles.

What I am saying is that, with a few exceptions, largely concentrated in the contributions of Heidi Maibom and issues with her editing, there is nothing wrong with this Handbook; but there are so many things missing it is hard to know where to start with them. The practice of empathy is the source out of which emerge the ten thousand empathic distinctions in this Handbook. Key term: practice. Thinking and writing informed by the practice of empathy is the ultimate missing link.

Reviewing each of the thirty-three articles in the Handbook requires a book length treatment in itself. Therefore, I have provided one entitled A Critical Review of a Philosophy of Empathy (Two Pairs Press, 162pp. $10US (Amazon)), in which extensive background on the issues is also engaged. In short, this is a book about the book, and is the complete book review. Each of the articles is reviewed in detail with a seven separate and substantial sections orienting the reader to the issues, pro and con, engaged under core problems, history, understanding (mindreading), morals, aesthetics, and cultural issues, all relating to empathy. The recommendation? Check out the review, priced to cover printing plus a latte and biscotti for the reviewer, prior to engaging with the Handbook. You may get 80% of the value in the review; and you will not be bored.

[1]For example, see Gregory Hickok. (2014). The Myth of Mirror Neurons. New York: W. W. Norton. For further debunking of the neurohype see Decety et al. 2013, Vul et al. 2009, and Satel and Lilienfeld 2013.

REFERENCES

Complete, expanded Review of William Miller’s Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding: Review-of-William-Miller-Listening-Well

Complete, expanded Review of Cris Beam’s I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme EmpathyReview-of-Cris-Beam-I-Feel-You-Extreme-Empathy

Completed, expanded Review of Lou Agosta’s A Critical Review of a Philosophy of EmpathyAbout-Lou-Agosta-A Critical-Review-of-a-Philosophy-of-Empathy

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

Top Ten Trends in Empathy Lessons for 2019

Empaths can’t seem to get enough empathy – get some here!

10. Empathy versus bullying: in mud wrestling with a pig, everyone gets dirty – and the pig likes it. How to deal with bullying without becoming a bully? Set firm limits – set firm boundaries – thus far and no further! Being empathic does NOT mean giving up the right to self defense. It means listening carefully, and responding accordingly.

Empathy is the emotional equivalent of jujitsu – use the aggressor’s energy to send him flying the other way. Being empathic does not mean being nice, agreeable, or even being disagreeable. It means knowing what the other person is experiencing because one experiences it too as a sample or trace affect. By all means, try to be friends: “Courtesy don’t cost ya nothin’.” Make an extra effort – and go the extra mile. But do not surrender one’s integrity or basic human values. However, taking a walk in the other person’s shoes applies to the enemy too. It is called “Red Team” – think like the other side. Are they angry? Fearful? Sad? Enthusiastic? Empathy gives one access to what is going on “over there.”

Power and force are inversely proportional. As the bully’s power goes down, the risk of the use of force [violence] increases. Empathy is powerful, and if necessary it meets force with force. But then empathy is no longer empathy; it is empathy in the form of a breakdown of empathy. The “empathic” response to an attack is to “neutralize” the attack and be empathic with the survivors. You knew that, right? Empathy consists in restoring the boundaries and integrity to the situation.

9. There is enough empathy to go around. Granted, it does not seem that way. It seems that the world is experiencing a scarcity of empathy – and no one is saying the world is a sufficiently empathic place. Consider an analogy. You know how we can feed everyone on the planet? Thanks to agribusiness, “miracle” seeds, and green revolution, enough food is produced so that people do not have to go hungry? Yet people are starving. They are starving in Yemen, Africa, Asia – they are starving in Chicago, too.

Why? Politics in the pejorative sense of the word: bad behavior on the part of people, aggression, withholding, and violence. The food is badly distributed. Now apply the same idea to empathy.

There is enough empathy to go around – but it is badly distributed due to bad behavior and politics in the pejorative sense. Drive out the aggression, bullying, shaming, integrity outages, and so on, and empathy naturally comes forth. People are naturally empathic, and the empathy expands if one gives them space to let it expand.

8. Empathy is not an “on off” switch. Empathy is [like] a dimmer, a tuner. Dial it up or dial it down. We tend to think of empathy as an “on off” switch. Turn it on for friends, the home team, the in crowd; turn it off for opponents, the competition, the outsiders. However, empathy is a dial or tuner – turn it up or down gradually depending on the situation.

The surgeon has to turn his empathy way down in order to operate on the human body as a biological system; but the surgeon never forgets that the operation is occurring so that the patient can return to his or her family and friends as a whole human being. This “dialing up” or “dialing down” does not come naturally (whereas “on” or “off” seems to be the common reaction). That is why training and practice are needed.

If I can cross the street to avoid the homeless person and thereby regulate my empathy downward; and I can also cross the street in the other direction and buy Streetwise or give her a shrink-wrapped snack bar.

Approaching empathy as a tuner or dial that expands or contracts one’s openness to the experiences of the other person (rather than an “on-off” switch), shows the way to avoiding being overwhelmed by the other’s difficult experience and the accompanying burn out, “compassion fatigue,” or empathic distress. Dial down the exposure. Take a sample and a vicarious experience. Put one’s toe or ankle in the water rather than jump in up to one’s neck.

7. The poet Robert Frost wrote: Good fences make good neighbors. There is a gate in the fence [a fence, not a wall] and over the gate is the word “empathy.” Empathy is all about boundaries. Empathy is all about moving across the boundary between self and other.

The boundary is not a wall, but a semi-permeable membrane that allows communication of feelings, thoughts, intentions, and so on. As noted above, the poet Robert Frost asserts that good fences make good neighbors. But fences are not walls. Fences have gates in them. Over the gate is inscribed the word “empathy,” which invites visits across the boundary. In the business world, the gate is sometimes called a “service level agreement (SLA).”

6. Empathy reduces conflict, aggression, and rage. Getting a good listening calms, soothes, and de-escalates. Getting a good listening de-escalates, period. When a person does not get the dignity, respect, or empathy to which he feels he is entitled, then he becomes angry. Lack of empathy and dignity violations expand anger and rage.

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.

5. Empathy is a method of data gathering – sampling – about the experiences of the other person. Hold this point. Simply stated, empathic receptivity is a technique of data collection about the experiences of other people. This is not mental telepathy. Human beings are receptive to one another, open to one another experientially, but with some conditions and qualifications. You have to listen to the other person and talk with him or her. You have to interact with the person. The one individual gets a sample of the experience of the other person. The one individual gets a trace of the other individual’s experience (like in data sampling) without merging with the other.

Through its four phases, empathy is a method of gathering data about the experience of the person as the other person experiences his or her experience. This data (starting with vicarious experience) is processed further by empathic understanding of possibilities and empathic interpretation of perspectives in order to give back to the other person his or her own experience by means of empathic responsiveness in language or gesture in such a way that the other person recognizes the experience as the person’s own.

4. Empathy is distinct from compassion or even rational compassion. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, maybe you are being too compassionate. I hasten to add this does not mean be hard-hearted, cold, mean-spirited, or indifferent. It means in the face of overwhelming suffering, tune down one’s empathic receptivity in order not to be emotionally neutralized. Tune up one’s cognitive empathy in order to understand what is going on and what are the options for making a positive difference in the face of the challenge at hand.

Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable to burnout and “compassion fatigue.” As noted, the risk of compassion fatigue is a clue that empathy is distinct from compassion, and if one is suffering from compassion fatigue, then one’s would-be practice of empathy is off the rails, in breakdown. Maybe one is being too compassionate instead of practicing empathy. In empathy, the listener gets a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or problem, including their suffering, so the listener suffers vicariously, but without being flooded and overwhelmed by the other’s experience.

The world needs \ more compassion and expanded empathy; but in managing compassion fatigue one may usefully turn down one’s compassion and turn up one’s empathy. The power of well-practiced empathy is that it enables one to sample the experience of the other, including their suffering (which is the problematic experience), without being inundated by it. Instead of diving in head first, one puts one’s toe in the waters of the other person’s experiences. To extend the metaphor, one needs to get the entire ankle in the water to gauge its temperature accurately, but that is still a lot different than being up to one’s neck in it.

The bottom line? Empathy is distinct from compassion. 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.

3. Empathy lessons are available every moment of every day: They are available in every encounter with another person, every anticipated encounter, and every encounter that has just occurred. Whether struggling to survive and attempting just to get through the day or flourishing, consider the other person as one’s empathy trainer.

The other person trains one in empathy by being uncommunicative, difficult, shut down, fearful, angry, enraged, outraged (lots of rage), sad, high spirited, too withholding, too generous, disequilibrated, perfectly centered, stuck up, arrogant, passive aggressive, aggressively helpless, annoyingly right, “obviously” wrong, or otherwise struggling with something that is hard to express. Sometimes the message is loud and clear. Thus, the baby trains the parent in empathy with loud exclamations; the customer sometimes does exactly the same thing to the businessperson; the patient, the doctor; the consultant, the client, and so on. The empathy lesson is to listen with renewed receptivity, understanding, and responsiveness to your kids, customers, clients, neighbors, and fellow human beings.

Every human encounter is a potential empathy lesson in picking up on the affect of the other person; in processing what is possible for the other person in spite of the stuckness or difficulty; in taking a walk in the other’s shoes when one really is without a clue as to what is going on; in taking what one has gotten by way of a vicarious experience and giving it back to the other person in a way that the other person recognizes it as his own.

The baby, the student, the patient, the customer, the neighbor, are the ones who bring empathy into existence for the parent, the teacher, the business person, in turn. The former provide an opening, a “set up,” a clearing, for the possibility of empathy on the part of the latter.

If we needed to multiple the number of empathy lessons available in every moment, then we would make these tips into equations: cynicism down, empathy up; shame down, empathy up; egocentrism down, empathy up; opinions and meaning making down, empathy up; narcissism down, empathy up; stress down, empathy up, and so on.
One can also reverse these empathy lessons: cynicism up, empathy down, and so on. In addition, numerous things are positively correlated with empathy: Acknowledgment up, empathy up; humor up, empathy up; self-esteem up, empathy up; random acts of kindness up, empathy up; a gracious and generous listening up, empathy up.

If you work in an environment laced with cynicism, the opportunities for empathy are constantly present, albeit in a privative mode. Get in touch with your empathy, which is powerful in such a context, and express a positive possibility. Your life, your job, your relations, will never be the same.

2. Empathy expands its claim to be a key leadership competency. Empathic leadership is never more visible than when it is lacking. Empathic leaders provide governance from contribution, commitment, and communication, not fear, chaos, or bullying. Empathic leaders follow the money, but do not follow it off a cliff. Empathic leaders make integrity the foundation of workability. They respect boundaries, speak and act with integrity, and honor their word. Here “integrity” means “workability,” not moral judgments. So, for example, a square bicycle wheel lacks integrity. It does not work. Empathic leaders find the best person for the job, get the person’s input on what it’s gonna take, create a set up for success, let the person do the job, and follow up periodically.

1. Natural empaths get expanded empathy. Paradoxically, natural empaths suffer from a lack of empathy. Natural empaths are so sensitive to the pain and suffering of the world that they must isolate themselves, cutting themselves off from the emotional life sustaining recognition and support that people require to flourish and be fully human.

The Natural Empath falls into a double bind, and her suffering seems inevitable. She is swamped by too much openness to the suffering of the other person or overcome by guilt at not living up to her own standards of fellow-feeling and ethics.

But the suffering is not inevitable. Such 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 “tune down” her empathic receptivity and “tune up” her empathic understanding and interpretation, while being more flexible about her ethical standards. Here “flexible” does not mean be unethical, but rather allow for the possibility that one needs to work on the balance between one’s own well-being and that of others in helping others.

Now please do not jump to conclusions. That does not mean the Natural Empath should become hard-hearted or unkind. That would definitely not expand empathy. In order to overcome the breakdown of empathic receptivity, what does one actually do in order to expand or contract one’s empathic receptivity?

The empathy lesson for such individuals? Practice methods of “down regulating” one’s empathy. For example, focus on mentalizing, top down empathy, placing oneself in the other person’s shoes, rather than imaginatively evoking the vicarious emotions of the other person’s experiences. Perspective-taking exercises—imaginatively putting oneself in the other’s point of view—expand the participant’s empathy during training sessions. Perspective taking incidentally promotes helping, “pro social” behaviors when it indirectly activates pro-social emotions such as compassion.

Over-intellectualizing (often considered a defense mechanism) is also a proven method of inhibiting empathic receptivity. Compartmentalization, rationalization, and displacement are all methods of putting distance between oneself and another’s feelings. Though usually considered defenses against feelings, in the case of the Natural Empath, such defenses are just what are needed to get through a tough spot of over-stimulation or emotional flooding in the face of the difficult experiences of other persons.

Ours is a world in which pain and suffering are abundant. This does not make the would-be empath cold-hearted or the object of moral condemnation. Indeed such people might be more willing to engage in helping behaviors such as volunteering or donating money based on cognitive appreciation of the other person’s predicament rather than the experience of vicarious suffering. It means that the Natural Empath should practice taking distance from his own feeling in such a way that he gets a sample or trace of the other person’s feeling without being overwhelmed.

Expressed positively, if inhibition (or distance) were a medicine, the Natural Empath may usefully increase the dosage. Take more of it. But this is at best an imperfect analogy. Remember, inhibition is what enables the average person to be effective in a world that the person subsequently experiences as boring and dull precisely because inhibition is doing its job of down regulating the tidal wave of stimulations that potentially wash over the person; and likewise the Natural Empath, hypothetically lacking such a filter, needs to down-regulate her empathy through self-distraction and abstraction to sustain emotional equilibrium rather than over-stimulation.

This is surely a mixed blessing. The Natural Empath is a special case, and he may actually increase his good deeds in a particular situation by contracting his empathic receptivity, one particular part of empathy. If one can expand one’s empathy, one can also contract it.

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 in question 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?

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 empathic receptivity in a given situation, transforming empathic distress into a vicarious experience. Do the work of “up regulating” empathic interpretation whereby one imaginatively puts oneself in the other person’s position and considers the experiences thereby inspired vicariously, reducing the “load” on the emotions. This is different than intellectualizing, compartmentalizing, or distinguishing in thought, but perhaps not different by much. The differences are nuanced, but of the essence.

The recommendation regarding empathy 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.

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

 

Empathy Lesson One: Empathy is different than compassion

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

Image of Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD

10 Top Empathy Trends for 2017

This work aims to be educational in a brain-storming way about the role of empathy in the community and the market for empathy services. Hanna Holborn Gray has said that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make themfuturenextexit think.” I hereby also add: The intention of education is to expand one’s empathy. Amazingly enough that is not as comfortable as many people might imagine, which brings up to the first trend – resistance to empathy.

10. Resistance to empathy grows and is acknowledged. I may be a tad late with this one, since it is actually front section news in the New York Times, but just in case you have been living in a cave: Empathy is supposed to be like motherhood, apple pie, and puppies. What’s not to like? Yet 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 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 and building community.

9. Empathy is not an on-off switch; it is rather a dimmer or rheostat (and the public debate acknowledges this). Engaging with the issues and sufferings with which people are struggling can leave the would-be empathizer (“empath”) vulnerable to burnout and compassion fatigue. The risk of compassion fatigue is a clue that empathy is distinct from compassion, and if one is suffering from compassion fatigue, then one is doing it wrong. The listener may get a vicarious experience of the other’s issue or problem, including their suffering, so the listener suffers vicariously, but, strange as it may sound, not too much. As noted, if one is over-whelmed by suffering, one is doing it wrong, and one needs to increase the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity. Empathy is like a dimmer – tune it up or tune it down. Empathy is like a filter – increase the granularity and get more of the other’s experience or decrease the granularity (i.e., open the pores) and get less. That is the whole point of a vicarious experience – and training one’s vicarious experiences as distinct from merger or over-identification – to get a sample or trace of the other’s experience without being overwhelmed by it. Empathy is not so much an on-off switch as it is a dimmer or rheostat to gradually turn the lights up or down – gradually expand or contract the granularity of one’s empathic receptivity. This point is completely missed in the otherwise engaging and spirited public debate feature in the New York Times where Hamid Zaki identifies empathy with compassion – and – how shall I put it delicately? – it is a conversation of deaf persons about the importance of listening from that point onwards[see http://tinyurl.com/gwmfpxp%5D. The recommendation? Listen, interpret the resistance and apply conflict resolution principles – identify and express grievances, invite self-expression, apply the soothing salve of empathy to the narcissistic injuries, elicit requests/demands, propose compromises / action items, iterate – until resolution.

8. Empathy is too important to be left to the psychologists. For psychologists empathy is by definition a psychological mechanism. For example, identification or transient identification or projection plus introjection (or visa versa) or mirroring or mirroring plus recognition of the other or inner imitation or motor mimicry. (This list goes on and this is not complete.) And while there is nothing wrong with psychological mechanisms or neuropsychological narratives built around their operation in the cerebral neural cortex and basal ganglia, there is something missing – empathy. So what then is empathy? Very short definition: It is being in the presence of another human as a human being with nothing else added. This [big word trigger alert] is the ontology of empathy – being in the presence of the other individual without anything else added. (This is called “ontology” – the study of being and ways of being, and it is definitely not psychology.) For example, Heinz Kohut, a psychiatrist from a time when psychologists were either psychoanalysts (or behaviorists), had a definition of empathy as vicarious introspection. This has an key ontological dimension as Kohut says “the idea of an inner life of man and thus of a psychology of complex mental states, is unthinkable without our ability to know via vicarious introspection – my definition of empathy […] what the inner life of man is, what we ourselves and what others think and feel life of the other individual would be inconceivable without empathy” (Kohut 1977: 304). The point is that empathy is both deeper and broader than a psychological mechanism – it is the basis for relatedness between individuals. Without empathy, no relatedness. Empathy grants being to relatedness. This matter of being with the other individual, in turn, becomes the foundation for community in an expanding circle of inclusion. As soon as one adds diagnostic categories, labels, arguments – which, admittedly, can be required in some contexts – empathy mis-fires, relatedness goes missing, and resistance to empathy expands. Thus, an empathic conversation is frequently challenged to find the equilibrium between using categories and distinctions to access the experience of the other individual while being with the other and being receptive to the vicarious experience of their suffering (or joy) as another human being.

7. Life coaching gets traction as empathy consulting. Empathy and life coaching intersect (again). The reason an Olympic athlete has a coach is not because she is not good at what she does. Positively expressed, people get a coach when they want to take their game – their performance – to the next level. Many people are already good at what they do and are committed to expanding their results in one area or another such as career, relationships, physical well-being, contribution to community, or peace of mind, in which their experience indicates something is missing. People get a therapist when they want a diagnosis or when they are pushed into survival and need to find a way out. Nothing wrong with that – indeed it can be critical path to transforming suffering into productive results. However, there is good news here – many people are not suffering but have an area in their lives that needs work to provide the results to which they are committed. This is where empathy is oxygen for the soul and can facilitate breathing easier in climbing the stairs to self-satisfaction in accomplishment. Yes, performance may usefully be measured “by the numbers” with meaningful data, but you don’t just need data, expanded empathy is required too.

6. “Hug a stranger” becomes an empathy trend. I am not making this up – well, okay, in a way, I am. The human body is the best picture of the human soul. So hugging another person is not just an emotional and physical but also a spiritual gesture. In this case, hugging and the “space of hugging” starts a journey of discovery that gives us access and reveals that there are far fewer strangers in the world – possibly none – then we at first imagined. I learned about this trend from Stone Kraushaar who distinguishes the physical embrace – the hug [with permission] – between two people from the “space of hugging,” which (on a good day) opens up a whole universe of empathy, sharing, transforming, building community, and being with mutual humanity. While acknowledging that hugging is not empathy, in the context of Stone’s work (and pending book), it is – in the deep sense of being in the presence of another human being without anything extraneous being added or subtracted. So if you see people walking down the street stopping for conversation, asking permission, breaking out in spontaneously hugging one another, you will know they have been engaging with Stone’s provocative proposal. You just might see yourself and encounter your own humanity in another in a new way you had not previously imagined. The empathic point is that you start by thinking these other people “out there” are strangers but when you get to know them well enough to be comfortable with a hug, you and they belong to the same community – you are not strangers after all.

5. Health insurers promise empathy, do not deliver, and continue to collect monopoly rents. The empathy gap widens. Health insurers maintain a firm grip on the market for empathy-related “behavioral health” services without actually providing any. This is the only candidate trend from last year that I am repeating, since it is still accurate but a work in progress – and, unfortunately, picking up speed, going in the wrong direction. The Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) – reportedly to be terminated with extreme prejudice as this piece is about to be posted – promised to equalize benefits for medical benefits such as annual physical health checkup (including $800 worth of blood work) with mental health services such as psychotherapy. At the risk of being cynical, I don’t know if the reader has tried to collect lately or services rendered. The war stories, pretexts for nonpayment, and simple violations of their own rules – e.g., timely response – by insurers continue to mount. One feels a certain dissatisfaction with the lack of solutions. What to do about it? In spite of claims to the contrary, the recommendation from insurers seems to be: “But your majesty, the people have no mental health benefits. Then let them pay cash! And then let them eat cake.”

4. Medical doctors “get it” – empathy is good for your health. Empathy gets traction as an evidence-based intervention. “Evidence-based everything” is the gold standard in medical and so-called “behavioral health” interventions; and that is as it should be (Jeremy Howick, (2011)). The “gold standard” of the “gold standard” is double-blind testing, which works especially well in the cases of drugs in which one can indeed “double-blind” the test so that neither the researcher nor the recipient knows who is getting what pill. While judgments based on clinical practice, tacit knowledge, and deep life experience will continue to have a role, these need to be qualified by the best available evidence. But here is the issue: 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: 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) [Howick: 5, 11]. The :effect size” is a function of the the fact – 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 trend here is that research will emerge that puts the use of empathy in human relations as demonstrably so effective in the medical and behavioral health contexts 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, compassion fatigue. But penicillin, too, has to be properly dosed or the results will be unpredictable. Regarding empathy, see the discussion above about empathy not being an on-off switch but a rheostat that requires training to get 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 (see M. Hojat et al, (2011), John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al, (2014), David P. Rakel et al, (2009)). 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. Curiously enough, among medical doctors, psychiatrics are alleged to be “lagging adopters”; among psychologists, those specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy are – note that Arthur Ciaramicoli claims to have it both ways (in a book (2016) that I wish I had written).

3. The culture of empathy taps into the power of empathy. Empathy gets in touch with its own power and becomes self-aware as being powerful. This is (and would be) completely unpredictable. At least initially that looks like the culture of empathy partnering with assertiveness training, fair fighting, and being self-expressed. The culture of empathy gets traction in conflict resolution, building community, setting limits to the anti-empathic methods of bullies; and this trend gets the attention that it so richly deserves. The CultureOfEmpathy [one word] is the web site and brain child of Edwin Rutsch, whose has literally interviewed dozens of empathy scholars and researchers (including myself) and is one of the most inclusive people I have ever met. Here is the issue: in fighting off bullies how does one do so in such a way that one does not become a bully oneself? The recommendation is direct: empathy is about setting boundaries between self and other and crossing boundaries between self and other in a way that enhances mutual understanding and community. No one was ever required by empathy to be a door matt. Since empathy works best and seems to require that people relate as equals in the matter of their humanity, the relation between empathy and power has always been fraught. It requires work. When the power relations as too asymmetrical or when force (violence) is being used to coerce an outcome, then a level playing field has to be reestablished for empathy to get traction. Then the empathic thing to do is fight back – self-defense is its own justification. Simple as that (though, as usual, the devil is in the details). Bullying – and related forms of aggression are the contrary of empathy – crossing boundaries in ways that generate misunderstanding and the dehumanizing aspects of shame and humiliation. Set firm boundaries.

2. Empathy becomes known as reducing inflammation and restoring homeostatic equilibrium to the body according to evidence based research along with mindfulness (a form of meditation), Yoga, Tai Chi, sensory deprivation and certain naturally occurring steroids (Antoni MH, Lutgendorf SK, Blomberg B et al. (2011), David Black, Steve Cole, Michael Irwin et al, (2013), Michael R Irwin and Richard Olmstead, (2012)). Although an over-simplification, when the human body is attacked by bacteria, it mounts an inflammatory defense that sends macrophages to the site of the attack and causes “sick 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 fights off the infection using its natural immune response. However, fast forward to modern times. This natural response did not imagine the stresses of modern life back when we were short proto-humanoids inhabiting the Serengeti plain and fending off large predators. Basically, the body responds in the same way to the chronic stress 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. The inflammation become 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 those indicated above reduce biological markers of inflammation and restore equilibrium. This is also a metaphor for when an angry [“inflamed”] person is listened to empathically, they [often] calm down and regain their equilibrium. The trend here is that empathy migrates onto the short list. Now for something completely different …

1. A definable market for empathy software and business services emerges. Virtual reality (VR) software meets and expands empathic understanding. A company named Psious [psious.com] has developed a diverse set of applications for virtual reality goggles to simulate situations that psychotherapy clients may find anxiety inspiring such as flying on a commercial jet, public speaking, shots (e.g., with needles) at doctor visits and many more (see my Blog post on Psious (http://tinyurl.com/jyuxedq)). Two other companies that are a software initiative relating to empathy include Affectiva [affective.com], which automates Paul Ekman’s facial action coding scheme (see my blog post (http://tinyurl.com/hymj3mj)), and Empathetics [empathetics.com], not yet reviewed. From admittedly incomplete reports, the engaging thing about Empathetics is that its value proposition is to train medical doctors in empathy using biofeedback under a program licensing intellectual property developed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In addition, this medical initiative is distinct from but related to two companies (Business Solver and Maru/VCR) which call out “empathy” explicitly as a key differentiator in what they offer their business clients. Business Solver is branding an empathy monitor for business success in a human resources platform and related services. This includes the disturbing data point that some 61% if business leaders see their firms as being empathic whereas only 24% of employees do. What to do about it constitutes the bulk of the engagement. Maru/VCR has a database based on the Vision Critical Research platform that enables its clients to build customer communities and get access to breakthrough innovations and insights in market research.

0. Businesses “get it” – empathy is good for business. Profit is a result of business operations, not “the why” that motivates commercial enterprise. And if profit shows up that way (as the “the why”), then you can be sure that, with the possible exception of commodities hedging, it is a caricature of business and a limiting factor. Business prospers or fails based on its value chain and commitment to delivering value for clients and consumers. However, some of the things that make people good at business make them relatively poor empathizers. Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing as the leaders get entangled in solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the technologies required to sustain operations. Yet empathy is on the critical path for serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), psyching out the competition [not exactly empathy but close enough?], building teams and being a leader who actually has followers. When the ontology of empathy exposes it as the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes nearly synonymous with expanding business. For example, building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, team building, are the basis for brand loyalty, employee commitment, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind? Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy, though ultimately both are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. Specific firms that have emerged – albeit in the context of an early market – to address these aspects of empathy in business and are called out in trend #2 above.

[These ten top trends in empathy for 2017 should be read in connection with the score for those from last year (2016) [see http://tinyurl.com/gub7pew]. And, yes, I know that there are actually eleven this year – bonus!?]

Bibliography

Antoni MH, Lutgendorf SK, Blomberg B et al. (2011), Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Management Reverses Anxiety-Related Leukocyte Transcriptional Dynamics. Biological Psychiatry, 2011; 15: 366-372.

David Black, Steve Cole, Michael Irwin et al, (2013), Yogic meditation reverses NF-kB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trail. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2013 March 38(3): 348 – 355.

Arthur Ciaramicoli, (2016), The Stress Solution. New York: New World Library.

Jodi Halpern, (2013), “What is Clinical Empathy?” J Gen Intern Med 2003 Aug: 18(8): 670 – 674.

Hojat et al, (2011), Physicians empathy and clinical outcomes for diabetic patients, ACAD MED MAR; 86(3): 359 – 64: doi: 10.1097ACM.0b013e3182086fe1

Jeremy Howick, (2011). The Philosophy of Evidence-Based Medicine, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Michael R Irwin and Richard Olmstead, (2012). Mitigating Cellular Inflammation in Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Tai Chi Chih. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2012 September; 20(9): 764 – 722.

John M. Kelley, Helen Riess et al, (2014), The Influence of the Patient-Clinician Relationship on Healthcare Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials, PLOS ONE [Public Library of Science], April 2014, Vol. 9, Issue 4.

Heinz Kohut, (1977). The Restoration of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.

David P. Rakel et al, (2009),”Practitioner Empathy and the Duration of the common Cold, Fam Med 41(7): 494 – 501.

Lou Agosta, (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery. London: Routledge.

_________ (2014). A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Pivot.

__________ (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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