How Empathetic are you? Learning to Understand the Thoughts and Feelings of Others

Jun 24, 2019

“I did not understand why the boss decided to reprimand me in the presence of other managers for failing to submit the report on time. After all, the situation with the protracted sick leave of my colleagues, where I was left alone to do the work for three other people and dealing with day-to-day matters, was obvious to him. I was very offended. I felt anger boiling up in me in response to his aggression. Only a few months later, after watching a video on Youtube, I realized that at that moment my boss had been driven by anxiety and fear. Because he, like me, needed to report to higher management and admit that he did not complete the task. He sort of transformed this fear into aggression towards me”.

– Tatyana, manager

Have you ever misunderstood the reactions or actions of others in response to your activities or any events? Is it easy for you to reach understanding and trust with loved ones? Do you have the feeling that you are alone, that people don’t listen to you? The answer to any of these questions depends on the degree of empathy that you and people from your environment have.

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of another person, the interlocutor. Empathy also means the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, to have a tendency towards compassion and the ability to understand someone else’s mood.

Each of us needs to be noticed, understood, and supported. But sometimes in the rhythm of modern life we do not have time to be attentive to each other.

 

There is an opinion that empathy is an innate quality that not everyone has, and without it a person is doomed to be selfish and disrespectful of others’ feelings. In fact, empathy can and should be learned. How to do this is described in this article.

Contents:

  1. Why aren’t all people empathic?
  2. Why do we need empathy?
  3. Is it possible to develop empathy?
  4. Types of empathy
  5. Levels of empathy
  6. How to develop empathy: a workshop
  7. Empathy development using the 7Spsy behavior modification technique

Why aren't all people empathic?

The reasons for the lack of empathy may lie in the features of character and temperament such as egocentricity, aggressiveness, a conflict-prone nature, pedantry and deceitfulness. It could be related to emotions such as irritation, hostility, intolerance and ignoring the feelings and words of another person in favor of our own. Additionally the characteristics of profession could be an issue, for example when immunity to the emotions of others is an objective necessary for work

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Lack of susceptibility to emotions and the feelings of others can also be a consequence of antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy) or a genetic disease (autism). In the latter case, our recommendations, unfortunately, will be powerless.

Why do we need empathy?

“Truth, charity and compassion will save the world”.

From a Buddhist parable

Empathy enriches our relationships with others. Possessing empathy, we understand the interlocutor’s experiences and we are able to establish a deep connection by looking into his/her world. Our attitude to people determines the quality of our communication. Therefore, do not avoid paying attention to this.

Empathy can be considered as a necessary professional quality for many specialists. It helps a psychologist to understand the motives that guide a person who turns for help. A doctor showing empathy is able to give their patient something more than traditional medical care and instill some faith in recovery. A teacher helps a student cope with a difficult task and overcome the nervousness before an exam, and parents reassure their child in case of failure.

Here is another example. Imagine you are a mobile app develop and your task is to create an application that works on the basis of the “panic button” for emergency assistance to adolescents who are victims of domestic violence. Without a deep understanding of the feelings that such a person might experience at such a critical moment, and the mental elaboration of a situation and possible actions, you simply could not do this work.

 

 

Empathy helps us in everyday social life. It helps us to negotiate, have interviews, build relationships in a team, be a friend and create harmonious relationships with a partner. By practicing empathy, we also learn to better understand our emotions.

Is it possible to develop empathy?

One day, late at night, my five-year-old son climbed into my bed.

“Hey, Gabe”, I whispered, pulling back the covers and giving him room, “can’t you sleep?”

“No, Mom, that’s not it”, he answered. “You’re upset. I thought you would feel better with me”.

From the book “The Spiritual Power of Empathy: Develop Your Intuitive Gifts” [1]

Indeed, we are not all as sensitive as little Gabe. But since empathy is a conscious compassion, it can be developed. In this case, an empathic person must be aware of how the feelings they experience can reflect the emotions of other people, and what are their own. If there is no such understanding, it cannot be considered empathy.

 

In practical psychology, there are many ways to develop empathy in an adult. One of such methods is the 7Spsy behavior modification technique.

Types of empathy

According to the classification of psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are 3 types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. [2] To explain the meaning of each type, let’s take an abstract situation as an example: a friend shares their experiences with you after breaking their relationship with a partner.

1. Cognitive empathy

This is the ability to understand how people feel and why they think in a certain way. Thanks to cognitive empathy, we become first-class negotiators – we know how to present information so that others perceive it correctly.

Cognitive empathy helps us to not ignore your friend’s message, but mentally ask questions and find answers for them based on what we already know: “How close were they? How much suffering is involved? How will his/her life change now?”

2. Emotional (affective) empathy

This type of empathy is characterized by the ability to transfer other people’s feelings onto oneself. Some describe it this way: “I feel someone else’s pain in my heart”. Affective empathy promotes emotional rapprochement.

By showing emotional empathy, you can not only understand, but also share your friend’s feelings. You subconsciously feel or know from your own experience what a separation means and how painful it is. You imagine how you would feel if the situation happened to you.

3. Compassionate empathy (empathic concern)

Compassionate empathy is more than understanding others and sharing their feelings. It actually moves us to take action and to help however we can.

You can visit your friend and cook some food, persuade him/her to take a short walk or a trip out of town or just stay close by.

 

We examined only one clear example of empathy. In a broader sense, every contact with others is a chance to take a sympathetic point of view, share someone’s feelings and help. By increasing the number of such contacts, you will work to increase the level of your empathy.

Levels of empathy

“I saw him in this state for the first time, when one day all the news sites reported a fire in the movie theater and dead children. He was sobbing, lying on his back and clasping his head in his hands. I literally saw his soul bursting with pain and compassion”.

From the story by Natalia about her husband

The basic level of empathy is a physiological feature – it is thanks to this that a connection is established between infants and parents. When interaction with others ceases to be instinctive, empathy can develop, reaching various levels. Try to evaluate yours based on the descriptions below.

Low

A low level of empathy is manifested in an inability to empathize. Such a person is selfish and cares mainly about satisfying their own interests and everyday needs.

Sociologists believe that the development of social media has contributed to a decrease in the level of empathy, since communication on the Internet is increasingly becoming a substitute for real communication. Empathy arises on the basis of the synchronism inherent in our bodies being similar within a single biological species. This explains why we laugh in response to someone else’s laugh and yawn in response to another’s. Moreover, on social media we meet other people’s grief more often than in real life. We see records of car accidents and plane crashes and we receive requests for financial assistance for seriously ill children. Sometimes we find confirmation of fraudulent actions when raising funds for alleged surgery. After experiencing this once, we stop trusting information, try to distance ourselves from disturbing messages, and become less empathetic.

Normal

A normal level of empathy is expressed when a person is ready to show sympathy at the right time for those in need, but does not seek to fully understand their condition. We are all able to feel sorry for a person who has failed. But not everyone is ready to take a meaningful role in the fate of a stranger. We are more inclined to experience empathy for relatives and congeners. Separation instinct is inherent in people for we divide our environment into “friends” and “strangers”, whether they are fans of an opposing football team, employees of a competitive company, representatives of an opposing political party or of another social class.

In 1951 psychologist Kurt Levin, formulated the so-called “Field Theory”, drawing an analogy with physical forces. A simplified understanding of the theory can be reduced to the fact that we are constantly in a certain social “field” – we have an established circle of contacts, inside of which we feel warm feelings. We are pleased to communicate with “our people”, but the more strangers are around, the closer and tougher the borders of our “field” becomes, resulting in fewer reasons for a manifestation of empathy.

High

A person with a high level of empathy seeks to be most useful to those who are nearby and to help someone who is in trouble. Such a person knows how to listen and hear and will never remain indifferent to those around. He/she is generous and attentive to those who need to speak out, ready to share opinions and give advice if asked. People around feel the power of empathy and often turn to such a person for help when something goes wrong or they need a shoulder to cry on. Such individuals are characterized by their observation skills and a subtle sense of “reading” people. They are sharply worried about reports of disasters, armed conflicts, and accidents.

Psychotherapist Beatrice Miller notes: “Empathy can be used for many purposes, from selfless sympathy to manipulation, including as a strategy, for your own benefit. Nevertheless, one cannot live in harmony with others, whether a partner, family members or colleagues, without having this ability to a certain extent”. By increasing the level of empathy a person gains integrity and becomes more open and sociable. [3]

Increased

Increased empathy is so strong that it can overshadow the feelings and interests of the empathetic person. Happiness of a loved one becomes more important for him/her than their own. He/she is inclined to absorb other people’s problems like a sponge. Often this leads to the fact that it is not easy to recognize what causes discomfort – other people’s experiences or his/her own. Such people constantly put themselves in the place of those who suffer greatly or, on the contrary, become incredibly happy when they do, and generally experience the same emotions as the others.

“Although empathy can give purpose to our lives, it can also be destructive”, Paul Ekman says. This is due to the fact that a person may begin to subconsciously search for “points of application” of increased empathy, by acclimatizing their own emotions and feelings with others’. Such a person often becomes a victim of deception and manipulation, because he/she is unable to distinguish true feelings from false ones, trusting others more than himself/herself. [4]

 

If you think this description fits you, instead of developing it, you need to correct the increased empathy. Remember your own feelings and interests – they also matter.

How to develop empathy: a workshop

If, after reading the previous paragraphs, you came to the conclusion that your level of empathy is low, you should learn to empathize with people by communicating more with them. Some of the tips below on how to increase the level of empathy will also be useful to people with a normal level – they will help expand the circle of “our people”.

Exercise 1: “How are you?”

When asking your interlocutor about how things are going, try to catch not only the verbal answer, but also non-verbal signs. Body language and tone of voice can often tell more than words, and sometimes even contradict them. If you are told that “everything is OK”, but the dejected appearance of the conversationalist indicates the opposite, try to carefully clarify: “It seems to me that something has happened. Do you want to share with me?”

Exercise 2: “Turn on the intuition”

Listen not only with your mind, but also with your heart and trust your intuition. Empathy is a mental exercise, be prepared to learn it.

Exercise 3: “Here and now”

When talking face to face and communicating with another, focus on the conversation and do not try to do other things. After all, didn’t you feel uneasy when the person you were talking to was flipping through the social media feed on their smartphone? Put the gadgets aside, take an open pose (without crossing your arms) and look into the speaker’s eyes.

Exercise 4: “Understand, but do not influence”

Try to understand what the words and feelings of the interlocutor convey and let them come to their own conclusion, without imposing your opinion. Express your point of view only in response to a direct request to do so, especially if you are not sure that it will contribute to the support.

Exercise 5: “Not about you”

You should not turn attention to yourself, for example, relating what you would do in a similar situation, or saying that this couldn’t have happened to you, because you would have reacted in a different way.

Exercise 6: “Become a mirror”

Sometimes, in order to support a person, it is helpful to “mirror” them. Take a similar pose, catch and repeat some expressions or facial emphasis. Use phrases such as  “I understand your feelings”, “I can imagine what it was like for you”.

Exercise 7: “Respect others”

It is within your power to treat the opinion of the interlocutor respectfully and seriously, even if you do not totally agree with them.

Exercise 8: “Imagine yourself in the shoes of others”

Try to imagine a person’s past experiences. Think about what influenced the formation of his/her personality, how he/she came to the current habits and what would he/she would like to achieve? In other words, try to stand in their place. This exercise can be practiced not only on real people, but also on characters from literature and movies.

Exercise 9: “Talking with a stranger”

Be attentive and curious towards others. Be willing to start a casual conversation with a stranger in a queue or at the store. Chance a smile at the person sitting opposite you in the subway. Do not continue the conversation if you feel that the stranger is not inclined to communicate. You will also show empathy by respecting their mood.

Exercise 10: “Collect evidence”

Try to dive into yourself and into the “black mirror” of your smartphone less often. Pay attention to the world around you with a curiosity similar to that shown by a small baby who is just beginning to learn about the world. Be inquisitive like a keen detective in search of evidence of a crime.

Exercise 11: “Take care of yourself”

Pay attention to your own emotional and bodily reactions during the conversation. Were you alarmed or inspired? Was your breathing even or did your pulse increase? Watch your reactions with the same empathy you show for others.

Exercise 12: “Do good”

 

Find opportunities for volunteer work to better understand how to learn to empathize with people. For example, you could become an older friend for a teenager from an orphanage. This can be a very difficult and important decision, so you should always carefully weigh up the pros and cons. There are many ways to take part in charity and, if you are motivated, you can find the right one for you. 

Empathy development using the 7Spsy behavior modification technique

If you are confused and cannot build harmonious relations with a partner, friends or your team, perhaps the reason lies in a low level of empathy. As a rule, problems affect several areas of life at once, and to cope with them on your own is very difficult, sometimes impossible. In such cases, it is best to contact specialists in the field of behavioral psychology to look for solutions.

The 7Spsy behavior modification technique is a patented method based on the behavioral theories of I.P. Pavlov, A.A. Ukhtomsky and B.F. Skinner. The method allows you to adjust the mindset that prevents you from building relationships with others, replacing it with one that will increase your level of empathy. In the framework of this method, a remote course is provided. Throughout the program, a psychologist will be in touch with you over the phone, through messenger or by e-mail. The work is carried out individually in strict confidentiality. By learning to be more empathetic you will be able to achieve your goals more easily and build serious and meaningful relationships.

 

Information from this website cannot be used for self-therapy and self-diagnostics. 

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