Realizing Empathy

We realize empathy
when we empathize
with someone
or something‒
including ourselves‒
through an unexpected
realization.

One that might makes us go
“Ah ha!”
“Ah…” or
“Ha ha ha!”
concerning something
we either did not
or had incorrectly assumed
to have understood
or appreciated
enough.

Slow Progress vs Stuckness

Telling someone
who feels stuck
to have more patience and grit
is akin to telling
a drowning person
to keep holding their breath.

There are times
when progress is merely slow.

Then there are times
when we are stuck.

When progress is slow,
our direction need not change.
Thus,
with patience and grit
we can prevail.

But when we are stuck,
we must significantly change direction
—even if momentarily.

The question is
in which direction?

To support someone feeling stuck
may we be there
by their side
to help them learn
the requisite new choice
of direction.

Empathy is a Means to an End

There is an important difference between empathy and empathizing.

Let’s start from where we left off in part 1.

In part 1 of this series, I defined empathy as follows:

Empathy is a word invented to explain what makes it possible for us to move from not feeling connected or at one with an “other” to feeling so. The feeling may last a brief moment or a prolonged duration of time and the “other” may be either a piece of artwork or another person.

Please stay tuned, as this definition will continue to evolve as the series unfolds.

To be clear, I did not define the word to claim authority over it. “Then why did you do it?” You may ask.

First of all, I did it to reduce misunderstandings. In Chinese, the word for “name(名)” is made of two characters 夕 and 口. The top character depicts the moon(夕) and connotes “darkness.” The lower character depicts a mouth(口) and means “to make a sound.” Here’s one interpretation of the word. When it gets dark outside, you have to say your name out loud so others can know who you are. The implication being that when it’s bright outside and we can see each other, a name is no longer needed. I felt the same way about defining empathy. Given that I’m in the dark on how you define the word “empathy,”[1] I wanted to say mine out loud so you know what I am talking about.

More importantly, I wanted to make a distinction between an experience and a means to the experience. I wanted to distinguish between empathizing,which is experiencing connection or oneness with an “other,” and empathy, which is a means to having such an experience.

Why make such a distinction?” You may ask.

We can know for ourselves when we are experiencing a sense of connection or oneness with an “other.” We can also know when we are not. In other words, an experience is something for which we can acquire empirical evidence. At the same time, such empirical evidence says nothing about what made such an experience possible. Empathy fills this gap by standing in as the what. Of course, a word isn’t the real means for having such an experience. It is a label for the means for having such an experience. So what we have in addition to empathy is many hypotheses.

For example, you may have had trouble experiencing connection or oneness with someone who said or did something that, to you, seemed stupid. But after you understood their situation, their needs, and the thought process they used to navigate their situation and fulfill their needs, you may have been able to experience connection or oneness with them. Based on this observation, you may come up with a hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to see things from that other person’s perspective.” This is one hypothesis often associated with empathy.

On the other hand, you may have also had an experience where you felt connected or at one with someone, yet you did not see anything from their perspective. Instead, it was something about the way they listened to you that helped you feel connected or at one with them. Based on this observation, you may come up with another hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to be listened to by them in a particular way.” This is another hypothesis often associated with empathy.

How about another one? You may have taken a mime class, where you felt connected or at one with another person while mirroring their behavior. Here, there was no seeing from their perspective or even being listened to in a particular way. Based on this observation, you may come up with yet another hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to mimic their behavior.” This is also a hypothesis often associated with empathy.

The point I want to make is that the list goes on.

In fact, I invite you to come up with as many hypotheses as you’d like. I also invite you to test them in different situations and discuss your findings with others doing the same thing. You may learn that there are different ways to hypothesize about the observations you’ve made.

This is why I find the distinction between empathy and empathizing valuable.

With the distinction between empathy and empathizing in place, we no longer have to take other people’s opinion on what empathy is as the gospel. We can think and decide for ourselves through experiments.

That’s not all.

Using the distinction as a common framework, we can also work together to accumulate a body of knowledge on what makes it possible for each of us to go from not feeling connected or at one with an “other” to feeling so.

Do you not find that valuable?

I hope you’ll join me in building this body of knowledge.

 

• • •

 


[1] Batson, Daniel. “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related But Distinct Phenomena.” In The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Edited by Jean Decety and William John Ickes. Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 2009. 3–15. 4.

Original article from Huffington Post / Photo credit to Christopher Michel

Empathy is an Explanation

We often forget that empathy is, first and foremost, a word.

Words mean different things to different people. Thus, one of the most difficult parts of writing my book has been to come to a resolution on what empathy is.

I browsed through what felt like a hundred different definitions of empathy. It all came down to a simple fact. Empathy is, first and foremost, a word. Not any word, but a word invented to explain an event.[1] An event observed and experienced by a philosopher.

The word “empathy” is a translation of a German word “einfühlung,” invented by Robert Vischer, a German philosopher. His goal was to explain how people can go from not experiencing a sense of unity (often referred to as “connection” or “oneness”) with a piece of artwork to experiencing it.[2] It’s like how Sir Isaac Newton invented the word “gravity” to explain how an apple can go from being above the ground to being on the ground.

Soon afterward, another German philosopher named Theodore Lipps entered the scene. He proceeded to expand the meaning of “einfühlung” to also explain how we experience the same sense of connection and oneness with another human being. A British psychologist named Edward Titchener then imported the word into the English language as “empathy.”[3]

As you can see, the word “empathy” has changed in meaning throughout history. I have no doubt that it will continue to do so. What will stay constant is the opportunity to feel as if we are connected or at one with an “other.” An “other” with which we previously felt disconnected, divided, or even at odds. Whether this happens for a moment or for a prolonged duration of time and whether that “other” is a piece of artwork or another person, the feeling is the same.[4]

I’m seeing popular articles being written to argue for or against empathy. They are well-intended. Those “against empathy” worry that we may do harm by being “for empathy.” Those “for empathy” feel the same way about being “against empathy.” Personally, I find arguing for or against empathy akin to arguing for or against gravity. Whether we like it or not, empathy is here to stay. What matters is how we leverage it and to what end.

When our primary mode of communication is through words, it’s easy to get caught up in a war of definitions. Yet, it is not the word “empathy,” but our ability to move from not experiencing a sense of connection or oneness with an “other” to experiencing it, that will make the most difference in our lives. No matter the route we take to navigate that journey or how difficult that journey may be, the fact that we can move there is what gives me hope for the future of our humanity.

I hope you’ll join me in not losing sight of this.

I invite you to discuss this further in our Facebook Group.

 

• • •

 


[1] Herwig-Lempp. Johannes. Explanatory Principle.

[2] Nowak, Magdalena. The Complicated History of Einfühlung.

[3] Titchener, Edward B. Lectures of the Experimental Psychology of Thought Processes, New York, Macmillian, 1909.

[4] Just to be clear, this is not to anthropomorphize pieces of artwork or to claim that they have minds like human beings. It simply means that when it comes to empathy, we’re talking primarily about our ability to have an experience of connection or oneness with an “other,” not merely our ability to analyze them. It is also not to imply that every single person on the entire planet can experience such connection or oneness. I have no way of proving that. There are also various individual differences in the kinds of “other” with which we can feel such connection or oneness. For example, many programmers feel such connection or oneness with computers. Not everyone can feel this.

Original article from Huffington Post / Photo credit to Vanna