March 20, 2012 9:25 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand empathy

Hello Mefites,

I guess empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person's shoes. Although I don't always feel this way, people around me say I have a lot of empathy. I guess that's because I listen and watch a lot and act accordingly.

But sometimes I have no clue what the other person is feeling, I just see he/she is not well. How do you empathize in those conditions?
Is guessing ("he/she maybe got bad news" / "I said something he doesn't approve" / "he's/she's just hungry") empathy? I see a kind of danger here : when I do guess work I tend to imagine scenarios and interpret things that are actually totally wrong (and this sometimes led to escalating misunderstandings). Obiously there was a lack of empathy somewhere.

So how do I empathize without falling in the "interpretation" trap?
I guess part of the answer is "ask", but sometimes it's not enough (or maybe I don't ask the right questions?).

Also : I see people around me preaching empathy, saying that the next revolution should be about empathy etc, but those very same people seem sometimes a bit… condescending about the people around them. They would say things like "I don't blame them, they can't understand what they did" with the underlying idea that they understand the situation better / are smarter, etc.

So I am wondering (and am bit lost) : how can I empathize without making scenarios or without being condescending? how can I truly empathize?

I've read this question. It helped but it answered only some parts of my questions.

Thank you in advance, you've always been very helpful!

PS : pardon my English!
posted by OrangeCat to Human Relations (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I see people around me preaching empathy, saying that the next revolution should be about empathy etc, but those very same people seem sometimes a bit… condescending about the people around them.

It's a lot easier to preach empathy than practice it.

Empathy, to me, is getting past what you think you know about the situation, or the other person, and just listening. Not listening and then constructing an explanation that makes sense in your own head, but just listening, acknowledging, and moving forward as best you can. So asking is the only way to really get that info. When you know someone well, you can rely more on unspoken signals, and it's definitely possible to get better at reading body language in general, but if you're not listening to what people are telling you, than you are living in an egocentric fantasy world.

That's not a terrible thing - most people do, and most people's imaginary mockups of the other folks in their lives are close enough to reality to work just fine. But if you want to approach true empathy, you have to be able to put that aside long enough to gather new data, all the time.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:33 AM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you don't know exactly what the situation is that the person is dealing with, just go with "they are troubled about something" or "they are dealing with some heavy stuff" or "they have some stuff going on." Then give them some space, or some kindness, or some compassion, or some patience, as the opprotunities present themselves. Knowing the details of a person's situation is not a prerequisite to having empathy.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:43 AM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Empathy by definition is the ability to understand how others are feeling in a given situation. If you've ever found yourself reflecting the sadness or anger or joy of another person, then that is empathy.

Specifically, it is about understanding what it is like to feel pain. Not about understanding the particular reasons why that person is in pain.

Empathy is different from kindness or consideration or sensitivity. But these attributes are closely related, which is why some of your friends are naively saying that simply more empathy will make the world a better place. As a counterexample, scientists hypothesize that introverts rank highly on empathy but they do not express it, which leads others to incorrectly believe they are cold and unfeeling. Clearly the correspondence between these related behaviors and qualities is not so straightforward.
posted by polymodus at 9:49 AM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

But sometimes I have no clue what the other person is feeling, I just see he/she is not well. How do you empathize in those conditions?

I'm not sure how "they're not well" isn't empathizing. It strikes me that empathy is trying to understand how someone who's not well would be reacting to their surroundings, and to act accordingly. You don't need to understand WHY someone isn't well in order to act empathetically, you just have to take "if they're not well, THEN they'd probably appreciate if something happened to help them out."

To offer myself as an illustrative example: say you see me standing on the subway with my cane. I don't want you to see me and and figure out precisely how I hurt myself. I want you to see me and realize, "ah, she probably needs to sit down more than I do," and offer me your seat.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:12 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mental concept of empathy involves two components. People usually emphasize or intend just one of those components when they talk about empathy, but they're both important.

One is the ability to absorb other people's emotional states. While you interact with someone, you translate their body language, tone, expression, word choice, mannerisms, and ticks into a map of their current emotions. Most everyone does this to a greater or lesser extent. It can be learned (people with autistic tendencies might need to be taught to recognize emotions in others, for example), yet it can also be so natural that you don't even know what you're doing. Some people who are drawn to tarot and similar fortune-telling practices think they have supernatural powers when really they're just naturally capable cold readers.

It sounds like you are able to pick up on people's emotional states and react accordingly: soothe if they are angry, comfort if they are sad, whatever, and people recognize this in you. But in the process, you sometimes make up "just-so" stories about why they feel a certain way, and sometimes those just-so stories are wrong and lead you astray.

The other part of empathy is learning how to create accurate just-so stories :) It's called "theory of mind" and it's the ability to create a mental construct of someone else's reality. It too can be learned and improved with practice, and it's generally a more conscious thing. It can seem a bit cold to people who want to place a magical new-age emphasis on understanding others, but that doesn't mean it isn't useful. In fact, I think it's the most important part of empathy—not just the what of their emotional state, but the why of it. Don't discard it as a tool or guide to interactions with others just because it's hard to get right.
posted by jsturgill at 10:24 AM on March 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

Is guessing ("he/she maybe got bad news" / "I said something he doesn't approve" / "he's/she's just hungry") empathy?

There's a difference between being empathetic and projecting. I think you have to be cautious not to assume that you know too much about what someone else is dealing with, and that some humility about how much you can truly understand the internal mental states of others is a big part of being empathetic. Sometimes saying, "I know how you feel" is the worst possible thing you can tell someone who is dealing with a problem.
posted by empath at 10:29 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's difficult and frequently impossible to figure out why someone's feeling a certain way; we don't know what's going on in other people's lives. The best you can usually do is guess approximately how they're feeling, and then treat them how you think they'd like to be treated given their feelings.

Empathy often works based on shared experiences and feelings. As an example: maybe I've just been turned down from a promotion I was promised, in favor of the CEO's unqualified son. If you've been in that specific situation, you can identify with how I'm feeling. If you haven't, maybe you've felt disappointed at not getting something you wanted, or betrayed by having a promise broken, or indignant because someone had an unfair advantage over you - those are all in the ballpark, and you can piece them together to get a more complete picture. But if you don't know what just happened, and all you can tell is that I'm upset, you can still empathize with that general feeling, since you've almost certainly felt upset before. And sometimes that's all you need.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:39 AM on March 20, 2012

I was at a victim-advocate conference and a participant stood up and told the following story about explaining empathy (paraphrasing):

I am a dad. My 8 year old son asked me what empathy was. I told him that empathy was about being able to stand in someone else's shoes. To see what it was like to live as they do.

My son then proceeded to step into my shoes that were by the door, too big for his tiny feet, and walked around, tripping and giggling. They were huge on him!

It was then that I realized that I had to change my definition of empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand that you can never truly stand in someone else's shoes.

Empathy to me is about asking questions, making a safe space for someone to talk about hard things - how does that make you feel? Leaving the defining to the other person. Too often, people place their own opinions/feelings in the place of the person that they are trying to empathize with and support. You do not know what to say. In fact, you can even say that, when things are tough. "This sounds really hard. I don't even know what to say but I am here for you. To listen. To just sit with you. To bake cookies. Whatever you need."

Another component of empathizing is to NOT problem solve. When someone wants empathy, they want to be heard and supported. They do not necessarily need or want you to tell them what to do. To go into "problem solving mode" with potential next steps. Problem solving is inherently linked with your interpretation of the situation and what is best to do next. Someone else may disagree with your directional suggestions or simply may not be there yet.
posted by anya32 at 10:54 AM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

When people talk about having an empathic approach, often they mean not making assumptions. Empathy is about seeing the other person as different from you and understanding that they therefore won't respond to something the same way you might.

To empathize, try to see other people's feelings as valid given who they are and the situation they're in, even if you wouldn't feel the same way in that situation. You may find that this changes what you say to them or do for them, or you may not. It sounds like you're already being observant, open-minded, and considerate, and that's a lot better than the behavior of many people who think they're empathizing.
posted by cranberry_nut at 11:04 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

But sometimes I have no clue what the other person is feeling, I just see he/she is not well. How do you empathize in those conditions?

I remember reading once a summary of theoretical approaches to empathy according to which you are 100 % empathetic in situations such as the ones you describe here: empathy is the ability to recognize/understand somebody's feelings, and, to a greater or lesser extent, to share them (understanding gives you cognitive empathy, sharing results in emotional empathy). So, strictly speaking, empathy only refers to this co-experiencing - at a cognitive or emotional level - of somebody else's feelings/emotional states. There are two other elements which are commonly collapsed into the notion of "empathy": 1. interpretation of the causes underlying the other person's feelings and 2. action on the empathiser's part re. the other person's feelings and/or its causes.

This is by no means the only or even an uncontroversial definition, and these distinctions might seem like splitting hairs. However, I found this analysis useful/interesting in several ways, some of which are directly relevant to your question, and some more obliquely related:

1. Empathy in the sense discussed above is a reflex reaction to your perception of another person. For instance, you will automatically read somebody with drooping shoulders, an apathetic expression. lackluster skin and unkempt hair as living through a particular type of negative mood (cognitive empathy) and experience a corresponding shift in your own mood as a consequence (emotional empathy).

When these clues which we absorb simply by direct perception do not suffice, we automatically seek to construct stories which allow us to contextualize and complement our observations in a meaningful way. We also interpret when the clues are ambiguous or when they contradict our own worldviews and seem therefore jarring, in need of normalisation.

In terms of your question - I get the feeling that only the first paragraph describes what would qualify as a 'pure' empathy, since it is the only option entirely untainted by your/ the empathiser's own baggage and interpretations - so, it is the only way your co-feeling is as much about the other person and as little about yourself as possible. However, this is a limiting view for two reasons: firstly, because, on the whole, it is unrealistic to expect humans to act entirely like wind-chimes blown by the wind - we are meaning-making machines, as it were, and especially so when the stakes are quite high (and with empathy the stakes can be very high - accurately assessing another person's mental state and/or feelings frequently has important consequences, either for our own or the other person's safety and well-being, or for our relationship with each other). And secondly because making educated guesses about the larger context which gave rise to the states/feelings we are empathizing with allows us to turn the resulting empathic energy into useful action. This brings me to the next point:

2. Empathy as described above is not in and of itself a moral force. It is what you do with it that can become a moral or immoral act (and the analysis did stress the idea that you can be prompted to morally dubious action by empathy. Condescension might be one of these; the example they used was withdrawing and becoming emotionally unavailable because you dislike the burden of the empathic feelings you experience). The challenge is to translate the various details of your interaction (recognizing and sharing the other's feeling/state/situation, interpreting context etc.) into meaningful moral action. There are several things that can help with this (no particular order):

3. Be as receptive as you can to the feelings you perceive in the other person. To the extent to which other issues interfere with your receptiveness and responsiveness (such as the fact that you do not admit the validity of the connection between what you interpret to be the cause and the feeling/state it provoked, or the notion that you might be misinterpreting, or the feeling that you are superior for whatever reason - as you suggest is the case with some of the people who proclaim themselves empathetic), postpone both interpretation and your judgement of the situation as a whole. Accept as one of the premises of the whole empathizing process that regardless of your own experiences/attitudes/opinions etc., whatever the other person's originating cause-feeling tandem is, the sheer fact of someone experiencing it means it is a fact about the world which at least for the purposes of empathizing has as much justification as any other (from at least one point of view - theirs, plus, maybe temporarily, yours) and has to be treated as such. Try not to condescend to it more than you would to any other fact about the world, such as the fact the sun rises daily. Use any strategy which helps you "feel the feelings" - analogy with personal experience is a widely used one. At the same time, remain flexible in your interpretation of THEIR feelings and abandon or correct erroneous interpretations as more information becomes available. This also means giving up on feeling frustrated if/when the other person resists actions which spring from the aforementioned analogies. Always take into account that the other person's take on their situation - their own temperament and inclinations and interpretations etc - are a crucial element in any action your empathetic energy might lead you to seek. Accept that you will come to your empathizing moments as you come to everything else in life, namely not entirely unencumbered by your own experience. Once you have managed to lay to one side those aspects of your own past, or your opinions and attitudes and prior knowledge which pose a direct obstacle to your current interaction, let the rest go - don't stay caught in an endless loop of empathizing - self-reflection and introspection on your motivations. Move to moral action, and let further directing cues come from your interlocutor - this includes clues re. what shape exactly your moral action should take. Collaborate with them in elaborating the details of possible action.

4. Finally, and somewhat unrelatedly, the issue of empathy taken as an amalgam of "cause of other person's (usually negative) feelings plus your own feelings in response plus your actions as a consequence of your feelings" has some pitfalls, as does the idea that the process of empathizing is worth nothing unless it is blind and/or does in no way draw on your experience. Firstly, you might end up confusing feeling the feelings with taking positive action. Sometimes, feeling the feelings (and reflecting this fact) is all the action necessary. Sometimes it is not, and it can feel like an empty gesture, which can be quite damaging, especially if the initial empathy-provoking feelings are of the negative variety. Secondly, you might end up much too easily exploitable. You need to be able to fine-tune quite well to the other person and to a variety of other factors, either in order to honour the feelings/situations you are presented with, or to be able to spot sentimental crooks (some of the most bitter people I know are people who were undiscerningly compassionate and taken advantage of repeatedly). Thirdly, to the extent that you will ever find yourself the object of someone's empathy, you will be able to spot those who mime compassion (which I take to mean empathy plus meaningful moral action) by virtue of being capable of cognitive empathy alone - they read you well - and distinguish them from people who are truly empathetic and act upon it. Probably others.

Note: mostly, "you" in this comment means "one".
posted by miorita at 12:53 PM on March 20, 2012

I am an Aspie, who has had the unpleasure of interacting with a lot of Cluster B and psychopathic types, and I think that empathy is a term that gets tossed around carelessly without, usually, being properly defined.

Here is a working definition: empathy is the ability to read other people's situations and respond appropriately to them in real time, and to feel an appropriate level of sympathy.

If, for example, an Aspie or other ASD person sees someone collapse in the supermarket and realises, 24 hours later, that that person was experiencing a medical emergency and needed an ambulance, they're not showing proper empathy because this is a case where the right interpretation at the wrong time is of no help. The Aspie might feel tons of sympathy and be banging their head against the wall that they didn't figure it out at the time, but that doesn't make a difference to the outcome, so what we have here is still a failure of empathy - in this case caused by too-slow information processing.

If your psychopathic buddy sees you get laid off from work under suspicious circumstances and offers themselves as a shoulder to cry on, knowing exactly how you need to be comforted, you will think that they are showing terrific empathy. When they later use the information you confided to them to get a job working for your demonstrably evil previous boss, splitting all your professional contacts against you in the process, and friend-dumping you with no other explanation than what you are able to piece together from Facebook, we once again have a failure of empathy - in this case caused by an absence of sympathy on the part of someone who demonstrably can treat you extremely well when he wants to.

At street level, empathy doesn't require you to be perfectly accurate in reading minds all the time. If someone isn't showing a particular emotion that you suspect they're feeling, they may not want you to see it.

Although it's very maligned, etiquette is an excellent tool for finding ways through social interactions that are "safe". It's a way of crowd sourcing the wisdom of the ages so that you don't have to second guess and anticipate your way throug every situation. We often get questions on here that go "my friend did x" and the response is "but maybe they felt y" or "but other people are allowed to have z perspective". While all this may be insightful in its way, the effect is usually to over-hyper-complexify routine social interactions while invalidating the poster's feelings. e.g. Maybe the woman who heckled your poetry reading thought it was okay because she possibly was raised by polyamorous otters who look like Benedict Cumberbatch, and you could devise a rulesheet or FAQ to distribute that says "no bringing chutney into the tents without a licence, no heckling during performances unless there's a waning moon that night, no stupid hats with the ear flaps, etc." It is usually suggested at some point that the OP is overreacting and how does she know for certain that the otters weren't poly, etc.

If I could add a Geek Social Fallacy it would be that the most egalitarian thing is always to invent a new set of social rules custom-tailored in extreme detail to fit every situation, while simultaneously ignoring stuffy old "conventions". For example, I've arrived at parties that turned out to be showers, without a gift because they didn't want to make anyone "uncomfortable" by telling them it was a shower; then had to sit there watching the guest of honour opening gifts while other guests asked me "so what did you give her?" And then had the "hostess" ask a senior member of the group if it was okay to ask the guests already present for money to cover the cost of their refreshments and be told that surely people understood her situation and would be delighted to contribute. I'm sure they thought they were showing superior social sensitivity by reinventing the "rules" and scorning convention, but they whole thing made me feel pretty rotten, even if I was the only one. If they'd just put "shower" on the invitation, per custom, and just provided modest refreshments within their budget, thereby following conventions designed to not make people feel crap, then I wouldn't have had to feel crap and they wouldn't have had to waste energy thinking about whether their actions were likely to make anybody *worth bothering about* feel bad.

tl;dr Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour is a great handbook for learning empathy.
posted by tel3path at 1:31 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here's a technical idea for increasing your empathy over time: Roger's Reflective Listening

Basically, when someone tells you something you ask them about the emotion. It feels clunky at first, but over time, it becomes a really natural way to connect with and understand people, especially since people will tend to feel heard and tell you more about what's going on inside their heads.

The pattern I probably use most is "So you feel ____ about ____" which will come out as something like "That sounds frustrating!" To which a person will usually say "yes!" or sometimes "not really" and go on to tell me more.
posted by jander03 at 8:28 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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