Empathy is a term that is often misunderstood. This page attempts to describe ’empathy’ and suggest ways that we can become more empathetic towards others. Empathy is perhaps the most advanced of all communication skills.
‘Empathy is the ability to see the world as another person, to share and understand another person’s feelings, needs, concerns and/or emotional state.’
Empathy is a selfless act that enables us to learn more about people and relationships with people – it is a desirable skill beneficial to ourselves, others and society. Phrases such as ‘being in your shoes’ and ‘soul mates’ imply empathy. Empathy has even been likened to a spiritual or religious state of connection with another person or group of people.
I call him religious who understands the suffering of others.
Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.
Being empathetic requires two basic components: effective communication and a strong imagination. Shared experiences can also help you to empathise.
Empathy is a skill that can be developed and, as with most interpersonal skills, empathising (at some level) comes naturally to most people. You can probably think of examples when you have felt empathy for others or when others have been empathetic towards you. Imagine a colleague becomes stressed at work due to an unfortunate situation in their personal life; their productivity falls and deadlines are missed. If you were empathetic you might try to relieve work pressures and offer to help out where you could. You could try to imagine how it must feel to be that person and understand why their work commitments were not being met.
Understanding is the desired outcome or goal in any communication process.
Basic understanding is easily achieved but a deeper understanding is the result of effective communication. This involves overcoming the various barriers to communication, being able to express yourself effectively verbally and non-verbally, by active listening, clarification and other interpersonal skills.
In addition to effective communication, good powers of imagination are required to empathize with others.
Everybody sees the world differently, based on their experiences, their up-bringing, culture, religion, opinions and beliefs. In order to empathise with another person you need to see the world from their perspective and therefore need to use some imagination as to what their perspective is based on, how they see the world and why they see it differently from you. Many people find it easier to empathise with people who are closer to them and have more shared experiences and views.
We have all been exposed to news stories of drought and famine in Africa. We can feel sorry for those affected and may be able to help in some way. We hear stories of people walking across the desert to become refugees in a neighbouring country or region, see the pictures of flies buzzing around children with matchstick arms and swollen stomachs, but can we emphasise? The information we are receiving via the media is limited and we don’t have all the facts. If we have never lived in a desert and have had very few shared experiences with the people in question then our imaginations cannot accurately fill in the gaps of information and enable us to fully empathise. More likely we feel sympathetic or pity for the people concerned.