Two Ways We Realize Empathy

We now have a definition of empathy and empathizing as follows:

Empathizing is a state of feeling as if we are connected or at one. Not empathizing is a state of feeling as if we are disconnected or at odds with an “other.” These feelings may last a brief moment or a prolonged duration of time and the “other” may be anything we can perceive as an object, be it a human being, an art object, or an idea.

Empathy is a word invented to explain what makes it possible for us to move from not empathizing to empathizing.

Realizing empathy is a moment when we have a realization that moves us from not empathizing to empathizing. We know when we experience this, because there is a resonance we feel that moves us even if a tiny bit. With the experience, we may also find ourselves nodding our head or make one of three exclamations: Ah ha! Ah… or Ha ha ha! 1 To be clear, this is not to say that this behaviors are the experience. It’s simply to say that the experience often inspires these behaviors.

There are two ways in which we can realize empathy. One is for us to realize instantly  without effort. The other is for us to make an effort to make it more likely that we will realize empathy.

Think of a friend you’ve known for a long time. Think of a time when without her saying a single word, you were able to tell precisely what she was thinking, feeling, wanting, or needing. Maybe you finished her sentences or said exactly the thing that she needed to hear when she needed to hear it. You “just knew.” Those are all examples of moments when you realized empathy instantly.

Now imagine encountering someone you were unfamiliar with. Let’s also say that she was difficult to understand. How would that feel? Awkward? Confused? Frustrated? Uncomfortable? If so, it is unlikely that your empathy will realize in relation to them even if you had the will. Why? Because there exists a kind of conflict in the relationship that will provide resistance to the process.

You see, the basic feeling that precedes feelings like awkwardness, confusion, frustration, and discomfort is that of dissonance: a feeling you get when you’re faced with two or more seemingly conflicting ideas, view points, beliefs, values, or emotions.“What kind of conflict are you talking about?” you may ask. I’m talking about the conflict between your expectations on the other, and the other as they are. If you expect the other to be social, and they are not, you may feel awkward. If you expect the other to explain things a certain way, and they don’t, you may feel confused. If you expect the other to respond a certain way to your actions, and they don’t, you may feel frustrated. All these are examples of conflicts. It’s just that we rarely think of them as such. Why? Because we want the world to work the way we expect it to.

Some seem to think this is because we’re intrinsically self-centered.3 I have a slightly different take, which is that the necessary and sufficient conditions were not fulfilled at the moment of interface to facilitate an empathic conversation between us and that other. It’s unrealistic to expect (irony intended) anyone to be able to realize empathy in relation to an unfamiliar other at moments notice without such facilitation.


1 Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation: Arthur Koestler. Pan Books, 1969.

2 Festinger, Leon. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1985.

3 Lorenz, Konrad. On Aggression. Hoboken: Routledge, 2002.