By Manasi Bharati, Content/Psychology Consultant
What do you think of when you think of the E word – ‘empathy’? Putting on others’ shoes, listening to others, feeling their feelings, understanding, curiosity, respect, strength, being conscious, etc. These are some ideas that most people think of when asked about empathy – which I picked up through numerous threads of conversations recently on LinkedIn. My understanding has also been similar – listening to others attentively and understanding their feelings without any judgements by walking in their loose-fitting, toes-crunching or Cinderella-fitting shoes is what empathy is. Moreover, I have always thought of myself as an empath and that I can practice being empathetic sincerely – just like many of us here think. But can we really be empathetic? Do we understand what it means? Let’s start exploring!
What is empathy?
Well, we already think that we know what empathy is – “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Oxford Dictionary). Hodges and Myers in the Encyclopaedia of Social Psychology define empathy as – “the ability to understand another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation”. And here’s Merriam Webster’s dictionary definition of empathy – “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”. To conclude, empathy is i) an ability that can be developed and ii) an action of feeling, imagining and/or experiencing.
But the origin of the word empathy comes from the Ancient Greek words of ‘em’ meaning “in” and ‘pathos’ meaning “passion” or “suffering”. It got its early usage as “being in feeling with somebody” (or treading in the same waters as somebody else) because of its application in Psychology. German psychologists termed this “feeling into” as ‘Einfühlung’. The non-German psychologists in an attempt to translate this term into English experimented with words like “animation,” “play,” “aesthetic sympathy,” “semblance,” etc. until they settled on the word “empathy” in 1909. This “in feeling” was initially used in the early 1900s not to understand others’ feelings but rather to project one’s own imagined feelings onto something or someone else. Later, empathy gained traction as a core for interpersonal connection, thus moving away from one’s own feelings and also considering the feelings of others. And now empathy has become a buzzword with its proven benefits for humans and organisations alike across the world and cultures. Empathetic leaders and organisations with empathetic cultures are far more successful than their counterparts – there is lots of research around this which we are going to evidence in our next Masterclass. You can register here – www.indiversecompany.com/our-masterclasses/.
Can one be truly empathetic?
A very strong critique of empathy in Basic Principles and Useful Heuristics, Psychology (2017) states that empathy has a “dark” side to it. It is that there is no clear definition of empathy in practice. There tends to be a narrow focus on one’s experience while ignoring the others, and this can undermine moral reasoning. People need to think before they act. Yes, feeling with others is important, but there also have to be certain boundaries to guide that empathy productively. In a way, trying not to retort to the earliest definitions of empathy (that of projecting your own feelings onto others!). This questions the ability to be morally as well as empathically correct.
Another critique is that empathy has ingroup biases and outgroup antagonism for its associates. This means that one is more likely to feel the joys and sorrows (i.e. be empathetic) of certain groups of people more than certain other groups. This has happened in several experiments where similarities in ethnicities have enhanced the levels of empathy felt. And hence, empathy can be ‘partial’ at best since the biases are in play.
However, what we do with our biases is more important than just being aware of them. So yes, one can be empathetic. It is a skill like any other that can be developed with practice. The E word is thus a necessity in today’s world, don’t shy away from it!
To know more about how empathy can impact your personal as well as professional life and how you can practice it, please join us for a Masterclass on empathy this Thursday, 28th of July 2022. You can register here.
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