Communicating with another person in a deep and engaging way is not an easy task. But there are effective ways for this empathy process to be successfully achieved.
Much has been written about empathy. However, I perceive the existence of an important gap between upholding theories and the living practice of the empathy process in every person.
I will try and concentrate in the “living” practice of this resource or quality that every person seems to have in a more or less quantity. From my point of view, empathy can be taught or developed, when you take conscience about the obstacles that hinder it and the resources that boost it.
I would like to introduce some basic definitions of empathy, which will be helpful for you not to confuse them with compassion, a strong emotion linked to the desire of relief from suffering; nor sympathy, which is a behavior related to the desire of pleasing other people.
Howard Gardner, in his multiple intelligence theory, defines empathy as the cognitive skill to perceive what other people feel in a common context. He describes empathy as an objective participative affection of one person in a different reality as his. Gardner himself calls it “interpersonal intelligence” as well, (Gardner 1995).
Daniel Goleman upholds, in its book “The emotional intelligence”, that empathy is the most essential social competence. He also adds: “Empathy is our social radar. Without it, people inside an organization are literally disconnected”. Goleman defines empathy as an awareness of feelings and needs of others from an active level in matters that concern to other people (Goleman, 2007).
I infer that almost everybody has heard those popular phrases about empathy, such as “place yourself on somebody else’s skin”, “put yourself in other people’s place”, “put on someone else’s shoes”.
Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu upholds that true empathy “demands to see all faculties. And when faculties are empty, it’s the whole self that listens” (Merton, 1965).
From practical experience, the empathy process implies not only the broadening of a person’s perceptive field and its consciousness; but also compromises trust in the wisdom of its intuition and visceral sensation. I understand that this task is not simple, knowing that cognitive thought (what I think) has been more important than emotional thought (what I feel).
Empathy constitutes, as such, a deep communication phenomenon, something like a multidimensional space where words and silences meet, movements and stillness, thoughts and feelings, presence and absence, lights and shadows. I could affirm that empathy is more an attitude than a technique itself. An attitude that requires to strip off of preconceived ideas and theories, (irrational and automated thoughts and beliefs) starting to look more like an experienced artist than an experienced therapist. An attitude that roots itself in acceptance and a genuine interest of making the other person achieve that he is, putting aside the first impulses of isolate it and change it.
Taking into account what previous authors said, I conclude that empathy is the ability that a human being has to connect to another person and adequately answer the need of others without losing its own identity, share its feelings and ideas in a way that the other person feels good with him/her, as well as having similar preferences to the rest of the people with whom he lives, so, empathy is fundamental in human communication.
The word communication derives from “common”, what we have in common. So, empathy is the ability to increasingly observe positive aspects of the other person, have more common aspects. That depends of one self, not the other person. It’s the capacity to know your feelings and perceive others feelings.
It’s the ability of experimenting subjective reality without losing perspective of your own reality, so we can guide the other person to experiment its feelings in a swift and complete way.
It’s the ability to listen to the other person, without any judgment or advices, just a hug, a handshake, because generally that’s what he/she needs at that time, an ear to listen to him/her and support him/her.
It’s the ability that a person has to place itself in the place of another and share its feelings. In a less academic way and, as I mentioned earlier, is to put “someone else’s shoes, or someone else’s skin”, in a way to understand its happiness, sorrows and fears.
Empathy is fundamental to understand the depth of the message of the other person and establish a dialog. This ability to infer in the thoughts and feelings of others creates feelings of sympathy, understanding and tenderness.
One of the key elements that form the emotional intelligence is the empathy and that it belongs to interpersonal domain. Empathy is the unique trace of successful interpersonal relations. Is with no doubt the ability that, with great skill, makes the progress and development of any kind of relationship easier.
Just as emotional self-consciousness is a key element for the increase of intrapersonal skills of emotional intelligence, empathy becomes something like our social conscience. Through it we can appreciate other people’s feelings and needs, setting the stage to emotional warmth, compromise, affection and sensibility.
Our main task is to observe and listen. There is a Buddhist saying that engulfs all of this very simply: “Do not limit yourself to do something, be there”.
Marshall Rosenberg states: “Empathy starts with oneself. To offer empathy, you need empathy”. The previous fundamental requisite of empathy is self-conscience, which means to realize the outer world (signs of the speaker), inner world (our own signs) and an intermediate zone, very different from both previous worlds, which I call the fantasy zone. This last zone is where all mental activity that covers beyond what happens in the present exists. Rosenberg, M. (2003)
- Gardner, H. (1995). Multiple intelligences, applied theory. Mexico, Paidós Editorial S.A.
- Goleman, D. (1999, pg. 430). Emotional intelligence practice. Barcelona. Kairós Editorial.
- Goleman, D. (2007). Emotional intelligence: Why is it more important than intelligence quotient. Mexico, Javier Vergara, S.A.
- Merton, T. (1965) The way of Chang-Tzu. New York. New Directions Publishing Corporation.
- Rosenberg, M. (2003) Nonviolente Communication: A language of Life. Second Edition. New York. PuddleDancer Press.