Understanding Empathy

“It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Empathy is a fundamental component of both emotional and social intelligence, yet it’s a highly misunderstood term. When people think of empathy, they often think first about sympathy and compassion. However, empathy has a much broader in scope. Empathising with another person isn’t the same as sympathising with them. They are two completely different capabilities.  Understanding empathy is key to be able to respond appropriately when dealing with people.

Sympathy is about taking pity or feeling sorry for someone else. Empathy is the act of listening and understanding feelings to take on the other person’s viewpoint or perspective – what they see, feel and want – and working to truly try to understand their situation. People feeling any sense of loss will be unlikely to be looking for your sympathy.

What Does Empathy Involve?

Empathy involves deep, active listening. Listening which goes way beyond hearing and understanding the words being used. It is a very difficult skill to master. There is nothing that you can do or say that will lessen the pain of a loss.  They are looking for you to listen, to comprehend and to understand how they are seeing things and how they are experiencing things from their perspective.

If you have good empathy, you’re able to read between the lines of dialogue and discern through subtle variations on their face, in their eyes, posture and rhythms of speech what people are really thinking about when you’re talking with them. Your natural impulse will be to consistently try to bring attention and recognition back to yourself. By overcoming this, you begin to develop clear intuitive senses that support your ability to be empathetic. Empathy is about resisting these impulses during the course of an engagement or interaction with you.

Empathy versus Sympathy

Let’s explore in more detail the difference between empathy and sympathy. It’s important to be clear in your own mind about the definition of both and the difference between the two. Sympathy is about taking pity or feeling sorry for someone else, whereas empathy is the act of listening and understanding feelings to take on the other person’s viewpoint or perspective – what they see, feel and want – and working to truly try to understand their situation.

Empathy is about accurately reading other’s feelings. It’s about respecting others’ feelings whilst creating a solution where both parties gain. Sympathy, on the other hand, Is an act of reacting to emotions to try to prevent and alleviate suffering. Sympathy is based upon pity and is not necessarily concerned with how others are feeling.

When you show sympathy, you take a position of superiority and, more often than not, you are trying to do something that will alleviate your own concerns and satisfy your own emotions.  So, sympathy is not necessarily concerned about how others are feeling – it’s more about doing something that makes you feel better. People feeling any sense of loss will be unlikely to be looking for your sympathy. Rather than showing sympathy, be kind.  This is a more empathetic approach. Sympathy sets people apart, whereas empathy brings people together.

The Development of Empathy

Empathy doesn’t come naturally. You had to learn empathy by being taught it through the relationships that you had with your parents or carers in childhood and the manner in which they demonstrated empathetic behaviours. Empathy is nurtured very early on in life. Nature gives the mother through her physiological changes and her maternal instinct, the ability to support her child’s empathetic development.  A very young child learns to recognise and show a preference for its mother’s voice and can understand and react to her emotional state. Imitation helps to create the child/parent bond in the first few critical months. From this basis, emotions are recognised and learned which automatically signals the child’s emotional circuits. The circuits are strengthened further through engagement with others and their emotional expression.

By the modelling of empathetic behaviours, imitation becomes a complex, subtle and often unconscious process – an automatic part of social functioning. Your mental representation of the world was formed through those early relationships, becoming quite an influential force in the development of your empathetic behaviour and the way in which you regulate emotions.

As a human being, you’re a social animal and are hard-wired to connect through empathy. You learn how to integrate into social groups – those of your family, your friends and other people. This learnt empathy then becomes a continuous, automatic process. When you model empathetic behaviours, others are more likely to adopt these behaviours themselves. This can become quite an influential force in the regulation of emotions and in building relationships throughout life.

The Neuroscience of Empathy

Empathy involving the sensing of another person’s feelings allows for rapport. Empathy is an individual ability, one that resides in each person, but rapport can only arise between people as they interact. Rapport evolves and becomes more prominent through the course of their interactions.

Two or more independent brains don’t necessarily react consciously or unconsciously to each other. However, the individual minds become, in a sense, fused into a single system. When you create rapport, the system of brain interconnectedness relies upon specific neural circuitry and related endocrine systems which inspire others to engage with you.

Your brain contains neurons that are important in empathy by helping to create an instant sense of shared experience. There are three types of neurons specifically engaged in empathy.

  1. Mirror neurons, which mirror and mimic what another person does and feels.
  2. Oscillators, which coordinate you physically with another person by regulating when and how your body moves and so tune-in to the other person creating an unconscious feeling of resonance.
  3. Spindle cells, which are involved in your intuition and rapidly assess your judgements and beliefs about whether to trust the other person in conjunction with other intuitive measures.

This interface of minds is a stabilising mechanism from outside both of you and emerges as you interact together.  The way that this interconnectedness works means that you can’t be emotionally stable on your own. It’s not that you should or shouldn’t be stable by yourself, but without the stabilising effects of the interface, you can’t be.

The deep consequence of this is that through the sum total of our interactions, we create each other!

If you’d like to find out more about understanding empathy, then you can get free access to Robin’s course “Understanding Empathy” here.

I am an emotional intelligence coach, trainer, and facilitator with over 35 years’ business and commercial experience. I am the author of “The Authority Guide to Emotional Resilience in Business” and “The Authority Guide to Behaviour in Business” part of The Authority Guides series. I have the most comprehensive range of emotional intelligence courses available on the internet taken by over 250,000 learners in 175+ countries. If you would like to discuss how online learning can develop resilience, emotional intelligence, or leadership across your organisation, give me a call on 07947 137654 or email me at [email protected]