Current research supports that empathy has steadily declined among young people from 1979 onward, and you can read more about its diminishing quality on college campuses here

Not only prized as part of a skill set and important value, empathy has already made a prominent appearance in various contexts with its international buzz status. Current research literature also highlights how building the capacity for empathy can have many prosocial effects and life rewards. Empathy applies to all relationships and circumstances in life. After recognizing the emotion that lies in another person, empathy can lead to emotional resonance. Whether pain or pleasure, this occurs when an empathetic individual feels what the other person is feeling. In many ways, it involves staying attuned and tracking with the evolving feelings and moods of the other person. Those in the medical community argue that empathy can impact behavior change and transform a personality in moment-to-moment awareness. In his pioneering research on empathy and work with diverse populations, Carl Rogers noted that “It means temporarily living in the other’s life, moving about in it delicately without making judgements; it means sensing meanings of which he or she is scarcely aware, but not trying to uncover totally unconscious feelings…”

Over the decades, the concept of empathy continues to be defined and redefined over and over in many ways with variant meanings based on who gets asked. Empathy can transform a relationship. It works. It is not only about being humanly caring and understanding; it is altogether practical. “Einfühlung” is seen as the German psychological term that implies “feeling-in.” In the Greek, em is “in” and pathos is “feeling,” and many started to combine the term and was officially coined at the start of the 20th century. Connection with others became the core of this concept and captured a swirl of experimental studies over the decades to better determine how people can live more emotionally fulfilled. American social psychologist C. Daniel Batson has researched empathy for decades and argues that the term can now refer to eight different concepts: knowing another’s thoughts and feelings; imagining another’s thoughts and feelings; adopting the posture of another; actually feeling as another does; imagining how one would feel or think in another’s place; feeling distress at another’s suffering; feeling for another’s suffering, sometimes called pity or compassion; and projecting oneself into another’s situation. 

Empathic workplace relationships have been noted to bounce more quickly within setbacks, possess less stress, have greater morale, and produce stronger collaboration among peers. One of the first steps toward acknowledging growth potential in empathy is related to seeing it as a skill to build. Many see empathy as a trait that they either have or do not possess. More effort and intentionality will follow for families, schools, companies, and workplace cultures that place a collective value on the pursuit of skill-building in empathy. It can be developed. Lieutenant General William Pagonis, Director of Logistics during the Gulf War, wrote, “Owning the facts is a prerequisite to leadership. But there are millions of technocrats out there with lots of facts in their quivers and little leadership potential. In many cases, what they are missing is empathy. No one is a leader who can’t put himself or herself in the other person’s shoes. Empathy and expertise command respect.”

Empathy can bring imagination into the suffering of other individuals as well, and it has been noted as a survival advantage. The inferior frontal gyrus, a part of the brain in the Broca’s area, has been largely responsible for identifying emotions and recognizing them on people’s faces. Being attuned to others’ emotions requires not only adopting their perspective but living in their circumstances, and it means “other-oriented perspective-taking. “ rather than just a self-oriented imagination of their circumstances. Ultimately, it means to see through their eyes and live in their circumstances. Women are naturally much better at demonstrating empathy and have more empathic connections than men; moreover, men have more of a cognitive bias against demonstrating empathy and demonstrating emotions. Despite gender differences and cognitive biases, we have many reasons to become empathic toward other people. Pursuing empathy can support relational health while promoting conflict resolution and establishing social connections. 

As part of the international desire to see more direct instruction on practical relational skills, recent developments impacting education have focused on growth in relational competencies as self-awareness, listening skills, practical judgement, and empathy. When in discussion with others and seeking an empathic connection, remain open, honest, and truth-oriented with physical touch. Being soft and gentle can also aid in demonstrating an empathic connection. Soothing the other individual’s pain through empathy will produce connection, support, and understanding. The importance of how empathy can transform a relationship cannot be overstated, and it is one of the most bonding and intimacy-building skills you can pursue. 

Here are several steps toward becoming more empathic: 

  • Develop self-awareness: We must become more open and aware of our own emotions before becoming more attuned to the emotions of others. 
  • Watch for the non-verbal and body language of others: Observing facial expressions, hand movements, and even tone of voice will be important indicators as part of the dialogue. 
  • Listen well: Pay attention to what the other person is saying and put a pause on any interruption; really hear what the other person is telling you. Use active empathic listening (AEL) as part of attending and attuning to each other. 
  • Evade judgment and disbelief: Judgement of the disclosed content can hinder movement forward in the relationship. Avoid offering tips and suggestions and simply hear out the other person rather than making an attempt to correct the problem. 
  • Reflect intentionally: Using empathic listening involves clarifying the original problem and re-emphasizing what the other person is feeling (i.e. “It appears that you’ve been wounded”). 
  • Attune to the emotional content of the dialogue: Current communication studies indicate that we communicate 90% of our messages through non-verbal means. Pay attention to how the other person makes comments in addition to what has been shared.

Lay aside personal values and perspectives: This practice allows us to take our eyes off ourselves and place attention on the other individual and focus on their needs.

When in discussion with others and seeking an empathic connection, remain open, honest, and truth-oriented with physical touch.

By Deepak Santhiraj, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Recent Posts