Developing Empathy

Human beings are capable of great cruelty. The range of their viciousness is extensive: criticism, insults, bullying, assaults, rape, murder, serial killings, torture, genocide, war. Yet, we can also be kind, generous, and self-sacrificing. The difference between the two groups, the good and the bad, is something I call the empathy switch. It’s not an on-off switch, but a dimmer switch. That is, it is a switch that raises or lowers one’s level of empathy.

But before going on, let’s define empathy. It is the ability to “step into someone else’s shoes” and see and feel the way they do. When we break it apart, we will find empathy has three components:

1. Cognitive, or understanding how a person feels and thinks.
2. Affective (Emotional), or experiencing how someone feels.
3. Loving Kindness, or understanding and feeling the pain/joy of another and wishing to alleviate their suffering or celebrate their joy.

In other words, empathy is about more than understanding and feeling, it is about doing something about what we know. Empathy promotes harmony and is the foundation for “The golden rule,” which is the basis for most religions. The erosion of empathy leads to the dehumanization of others. Rather than thinking of relationships as I-You, those with little or no empathy see them as I-It. When we view others as objects, manipulation, abuse, and exploitation often take place.

The decline of empathy can be just as devastating to a nation as the worse earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, volcanic eruption, mudslide, avalanche, blizzard, drought, heat wave, wildfire, or epidemic. Take a look at the United States, for example. The governance of the most powerful nation on earth is rendered helpless because of congressional gridlock. Nothing is accomplished because of bipartisan bickering. The only thing Republicans and Democrats have in common is hostility. The economic collapse the U.S. experienced was also due to the collapse of empathy. Wall Street traders and banks were motivated by greed, not by concern for what was best for their customers.

Because of its power to resolve conflict, empathy is mankind’s most valuable faculty or resource. It is certainly cheaper and more successful than taking military or legal action. But before proceeding, perhaps I should compare it with sympathy, pity, and compassion.

Sympathy is feeling sorry for the suffering or need of another, but not necessarily doing anything about it. Pity is the same as sympathy, but usually directed toward an inferior, such as the rich toward the poor, the healthy toward the sick, the famous toward the unknown, or the attractive toward the unattractive. Compassion is the same as sympathy, but always includes the wish to help those in need. All three of the above are a response to the suffering of others; only empathy is a response to both the suffering and joy of others.

Where Does Empathy Come from?

Empathy is innate. It is part of our nature. Infants are naturally trusting, courageous, curious, and empathetic. When an infant hears another one cry, it soon forgets about its own discomfort and is concerned about the well-being of the other.

Even some animals experience empathy. For example, in 1964, Jules Masserman of NW University performed experiments with Rhesus monkeys. He taught them to pull a chain when they wanted food. After that habit was established, Masserman changed the scenario so that whenever the chain was pulled, not only were they fed, but an electric shock was given to a monkey in another cage that was in full view of all. The monkeys no longer wanted to get fed at the expense of causing another monkey to suffer. In fact, one of the monkeys refused to eat for 12 days.

Hurdles to Empathy

If empathy is part of our nature, why do we see so little of it? Our “empathy switch” can be set to a low level for a variety of reasons.

1. A small part of the many reasons is due to a genetic makeup that includes the propensity to ignore the feelings of others.

2. The manner in which we were raised plays a major role, for empathy will wither and die in children who are denied love, bonding, and attachment.

3. There are physiological reasons as well, such as hormonal problems.

4. Another factor is mental health.

5. Also, our ability to be empathetic declines under stress and fatigue.

6. There are also cultural reasons. For example, North American men are taught by the media that gentleness, patience, and empathy are “girlie” emotions to be avoided while aggressiveness is “manly” and desirable.

7. And as Barack Obama said, “We live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained.”

8. Religion. Daily, innocent men, women, and children are needlessly killed in the crossfire of warring parties. Can there be peace without accommodation, reconciliation, and compromise? Some of the obstacles to peace are the scriptures followed by those at war. For example, is the following passage a roadmap to peace? “When Yahweh your gods has settled you in the land you’re about to occupy, and driven out many infidels before you… you’re to cut them down and exterminate them.  You’re to make no compromise with them or show them any mercy.” (Deut. 7:1)

The scriptures of other religions are just as harmful. As long as religious leaders and their followers insist that every word of scripture is the word of God, they will be able to justify their barbaric butchery. But, scriptures contain venom as well as wisdom, hatred as well as love, treachery as well as brotherhood, and deceit as well as sacrifice. Until we recognize there are both good and bad in the scriptures that have been handed down to us, we will be unable to choose the good and dismiss the bad. It is time to do some pruning, time to uproot the weeds that are choking all prospects for peace, and time to replace vengeance with reconciliation and empathy.

Instead of filling mortuaries with bodies and hospitals with wounded, we need to fill towns and villages with jobs and opportunities. Rather than waging war on ‘terrorists,’ we need to wage war on poverty. Instead of smiting our enemy with a sword, we need to offer a helping hand. Instead of trampling our enemy beneath our boots, we need to uplift him with respect and hope. There is nothing wrong with destroying our enemy, as long as we do so by making him our friend.

As Charles Kimbal wrote, “Religion should be a source for reconciliation, for tolerance and for empathy.”

9. When we offer love, compassion, or empathy we are vulnerable, for our gift may be rejected, and that is painful. So, to prevent the pain of rejection, we just stop offering the gift. Our decision to stop being compassionate starts in childhood. For a clearer understanding, let’s look at an example.

Tommy’s kindergarten teacher explained to the class, “Sunday is Father’s Day. Let’s make a Father’s Day card for your daddy. Tonight you can give it to him before you go to bed.” Tommy was excited that he would have the opportunity to express his love to his father. But when he got home he decided that his card, which he created with crayons, wasn’t good enough. So after dinner, he went to his room and made a new card with water colors.

While Tommy was painting, his mom and dad had a hushed and tense discussion about the possibility of dad losing his job and the economic hardship that would cause. Mom tried to be encouraging, but she was secretly worried too. She told dad, “Go into the living room; settle down into your favorite chair and I’ll bring you a coffee.” Dad tried to relax with his coffee and evening newspaper, when along came Tommy. His cheerful voice was almost grating to his stressed out dad.

“Daddy! Daddy!” said Tommy, “Look at what I made for you!”

While still reading the newspaper, Dad reached out with his right hand, located his son, patted him on the head and said, “That’s wonderful, Tommy. I’m proud of you!”

“But you didn’t even look!” said Tommy, who then tried to push the still wet card into his father’s hand.

“Look at what you did,” dad angrily said, “because of you I’m messy. Look at my shirt sleeve; there’s paint all over it, even on my trousers! What’s wrong with you? You shouldn’t be painting now; you should be preparing for bed. Ask mommy to help you clean up your mess and go to bed!”

Tommy’s dream of expressing his love was shattered. In his eyes, his gift of love was rejected. As similar incidents happened again with mom and dad, the pain was too much to bear, so he stopped offering his love. You and I are Tommy. The circumstances might have been different, but we experienced rejection and built a wall of protection. A wall that keeps our love locked inside. And a wall that prevents the love of others from reaching us. We now reject their love because we were hurt too many times by parents who took their love away whenever we failed to obey their wishes.

But we are no longer five or six years old. We are adults. So we can tear down the wall we erected in childhood and release our love. But, generally speaking, it’s not something we can do instantaneously. It takes time, but with patience and effort, we can return to our natural state of empathy.

You’d like to try being more loving but don’t know how to start? If so, just follow this advice from Charles H. Burr, “Simply give others a bit of yourself: a thoughtful act, a helpful idea, a word of appreciation, a lift over a rough spot, a sense of understanding, a timely suggestion. By so doing, you take something out of your mind, garnished in the kindness out of your heart, putting it into the other fellow’s mind and heart.”

The Application of Empathy

Besides in the family, where else can we practice empathy? In the workplace! It’s an area in desperate need of compassion. We spend roughly a third of the day there, and if we are unhappy in the workplace, we are wasting time, losing opportunities, and robbing ourselves of happiness. Yet, the average workplace is like a battlefield. Workers get mired in office politics, bruised by abrasive coworkers, and stymied by uncooperative staff. Why is this? The solution is so simple, yet glaringly beyond the grasp of most people.

Take Tina, for example, she asks “How can I deal with rude coworkers, unsympathetic staff, lazy help, and egoistic bosses who only think of themselves?” Tina doesn’t realize that she is trapped by her own way of seeing things. Her perspective is incorrect; her attitude is poor, and her heart is closed.

Can you find the irony in her question? She doesn’t understand that the words she used (rude, unsympathetic, lazy, and egoistic) do not reflect reality, but merely reveal her own perception. The words she used are merely labels. And the only labels we can stick on others are the labels we already have.

This is an important point, so think about it for a moment. When Tina calls someone rude, Tina is rude! By calling someone rude, she merely means, “I don’t like her because she doesn’t do what I want her to do.” Does Tina expect and demand that everyone do exactly as she wishes?

And did Tina stop to think why she didn’t get the help she wanted? Was it because Tina acted rudely when she asked for help? Could it be the person she asked to help her had another job that needed to be done and simply didn’t have the time or know-how to help?

By complaining about her coworkers, can you see how Tina shows herself to be unsympathetic? Yet, that is what she calls them! Why can’t she get along with others? Is it because she is too lazy to help others and take the time to build relationships? Tina gripes about her boss only thinking about himself. But why is she complaining? Isn’t because she is only thinking about herself?

The solution to workplace problems is empathy. When we can feel the stress of our coworkers and want to lessen their burden, we will help them, win friends, and experience happiness. The world returns to us whatever we give to it. We can be like Tina, or we can open our hearts. Like Tina, we can ask, “How can I DEAL WITH the people in my office?” Or, we can be empathetic and ask, “How can I HELP the people in my office?”

In opening our hearts to others, we open the doors of opportunity, discovery, and power. Power does not mean power OVER people, but power BECAUSE of people, for we cannot do much without the help of others.

Making a Difference

We can make a difference in the lives of other. An example of someone doing so for thousands of people is Mary Gordon, who established the Roots of Empathy program in 1996. She wisely realized that we need to teach empathy in schools and start with children. Here is a video about the program and here is the Roots of Empathy website.

How to Cultivate Empathy

1. Start the day by resolving to make the world a better place. Remind yourself to look for opportunities to harness the power of empathy. Become part of the solution to the world’s problems.

2. Tune in to your self-talk. If you find yourself focusing on your weaknesses and limitations, switch to thinking about how you can make a difference. Remain focused on the positive.

3. Awareness: we are in the habit of thinking about ourselves 24 hours a day. It’s almost as if no one else existed! Remind yourself that you are just a small part of a big world. Pay attention to the world around you. What are people thinking, feeling, and needing? How can you help?

4. Keep an Empathy Journal. Record your successes and failures. What have you learned? How have you helped? This practice will keep you focused and motivated. If you’d like to work on your journal in your computer and are looking for good software to do the job, you’ll find none better than Smart Diary Suite 4. If you are interested, be sure to read this page to see how you can get a 50% discount. Perhaps all you need is the free version. You can check all versions here.

5. Study body language and learn how to read eyes, faces, gestures, and tonality of voice. Paying attention to how others feel, rather than what they say, will help you avoid blunders and get along well with others.

6. When in doubt, don’t second-guess; ask people directly how they are feeling. Are they stressed out, tired, bored, overwhelmed, upset, or confused? Explaining how you feel may encourage them to share their feelings. You can also ask them if there is any way you can help.

7. Smile at people. Encourage and praise those around you. Do it with sincerity and explain in detail what you like and admire about them. If you can use some help, ask them for tips.

8. When communicating with others show you are interested in them by maintaining eye contact and nodding in agreement.

9. Remember that the most important part of communication is listening, or more precisely active listening. Listen to what they say, repeat it and ask them to verify that your understanding is correct. Always ask for clarification when in doubt. And to express your interest ask them to amplify on what they have said. It’s a good formula for successful communication: verify, clarify, amplify.

10. Constantly remind yourself what you and others share in common. You all are interested in peace, security, happiness, good health, fun and recreation, goals, and a life purpose. You have far more in common than differences.

11. Use your imagination to practice empathy. Did you see on TV the havoc caused by hurricane Sandy when it struck the Eastern seaboard of the US and Canada (the last week of October, 2012)? Homes incinerated, flooded, washed away. Loved ones killed. Loss of all one’s possessions. How do you think the victims felt? Can you feel their pain? If you were at the scene, what would you do to help?

12. You are probably not at the Eastern seaboard of the U.S., so focus on your area. What acts of kindness can you perform today? What acts of kindness can you make a part of your daily routine?

13. At times you may feel that you have to deal with difficult people. But remember that they are here to make you a better person. They are here to reach you important lessons. Perhaps they are here to teach you to be patient, understanding, accepting, empathetic, courageous. Don’t try to avoid them. Rather, try to discover what you need to learn to get along with them. ‘Irritating’ people are valuable because they teach us what we don’t like about ourselves. That is, whatever it is that bothers us about them (for example, they are too noisy, uncaring, boring), is what we don’t like about ourselves and points out areas where we can improve. But don’t be satisfied with just this lesson; look for more. For instance, what do you like about them and what can you emulate?

14. It is much easier to be empathetic toward members of our group (religion, country, culture, race, family and friends) than it is toward strangers and members of other groups. To overcome this weakness, practice the Loving Kindness (Metta) Meditation. This meditation will help you expand your circle of empathy beyond your group toward strangers, those you dislike, and even your ‘enemies.’

15. Study these 20 mini video lessons on empathy.

16. Heed this advice from Buddha: “Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant with the weak and wrong. Sometime in your life, you will have been all of these.”



THE POWER OF EMPATHY: A Practical Guide to Creating Intimacy, Self-understanding, and Lasting Love in Your Life by Arthur Ciaramicoli and Katherine Ketcham.