Empathy comes from the German philosopher Robert Vischer who used the term Einfuhlung to refer to an aesthetic sensitivity. As Answers.com explains, Theodore Lipps, another philosopher, broadened the term and used it to refer to feeling another’s feelings. It was in this sense that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) used the term in his essays on psychoanalysis. The term became more important in the 1960’s—some attributing this popularity to Ralph Greenson’s article “Empathy and its Vicissitudes” in the Interpersonal Journal of Psychoanalysis 41 (1960): 418-424. The obvious connection between empathy and effective interpersonal communication (which itself came into being as an academic area in the 1960s) ensured its key-word status in all areas concerned with human behavior.
In Star Trek, the Next Generation one of the regular crew members was counselor Deanna Troi, who, being half Betazoid, was empathic and could easily read the thoughts and especially the feelings of others, even without their saying anything. And one of the most famous episodes of Star Trek (Episode 63, Season 3) focused on empathy. In one scene of “The Empath,” the Empath touches Kirk’s wounded head and immediately his wounds are transferred to her own head. Here the Empath not only feels as the other person feels but experiences it as well. And Johnny Smith of The Dead Zone, possessing a somewhat different kind of empathy, can recreate in vivid detail past experiences of others just by touching them. Of course, ordinary humans can’t do any of these things—although many of us like to think we can. What we can do is empathize with another person’s thoughts and feelings to some degree.
Interestingly enough, the ability to empathize may not, in fact, be limited to humans. Some animal researchers claim that some animals show empathy. For example, consider the male gorilla who watched a female try in vain to get water that had collected in an automobile tire and who then secured the tire and brought it to the female. This gorilla, it may be claimed, demonstrated empathy; he felt the other gorilla’s thirst (Angier, May 9, 1995, New York Times). Similarly, the animal that cringes when another of its species gets hurt seems also to be showing empathy.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines empathy as “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.” The Britannica Concise Encyclopedia defines it as the “ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feeling, desires, ideas, and actions.” Wikipedia gives a number of additional definitions:
• Heinz Kohut: “Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.”
• Roy Schafer: “Empathy involves the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another.”
• R. R. Greenson: “To empathize means to share, to experience the feelings of another person.”
• Carl Rogers: Empathy means “to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he [or she] senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he [or she] perceives them, but without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased and so forth.”
Communication textbooks give similar meanings:
• Verderber and Verderber (Inter-Act): “the cognitive process of identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
• Adler, Rosenfeld, and Proctor (InterPlay): “the ability to recreate another person’s perspective, to experience the world from his or her point of view.”
• Jones, Remland, and Sanford (Interpersonal Communication through the Life Span): “The ability to feel what someone else is feeling.”
• Wood (Communication in Our Lives): “The ability to feel with another person or to feel what that person feels in a situation.”
One of the important aspects of empathy and which not all definitions make clear is that you never lose your own sense of self; you do not become the other person when you empathize. As Rogers makes clear, empathy occurs “without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased and so forth.”
Empathy is often confused with sympathy. If you look up these two terms in a dictionary, it will be hard to distinguish them; in many cases, you’ll see the same definitions given to both terms. Sympathy can be defined as a concern for another person. Usually the term refers to feeling sorry for someone’s disappointment or suffering, though it can certainly refer to positive feelings as well. The term may also refer to agreement as in “the two politicians are in sympathy with the new proposals.” However, there are two differences that are (in some cases) useful to make.
1. Empathy refers to the ability to feel another’s feelings (at least in part) but does not imply that you (as the empathic individual) agree with these feelings. Thus, you may empathize with the feelings of another but may think these feelings are foolish or destructive; that is, you don’t have to evaluate the feelings in the same way the other person does. Sympathy, on the other hand, does imply that you evaluate the feelings of the other in the same way. The expression “to be in sympathy with” refers to this similarity of feeling which is really a part of the definition of sympathy.
2. Empathy refers to the ability to feel what another is feeling while sympathy does not. You can sympathize with someone who is hurt and you might even want to try to reduce the hurt this person is feeling (perhaps because you love the person), but you don’t feel the hurting of the other person (as you would in empathy).
Textbooks in communication are primarily concerned with explaining the skills for achieving empathy. In The Interpersonal Communication Book and Interpersonal Messages I offer a few suggestions:
• Focus your concentration; pay close attention to the other person’s verbal and nonverbal messages.
• Avoid judgment or evaluation; these will get in the way of your understanding.
• Reflect back to the speaker the feelings you think the speaker is expressing to check your accuracy and to clarify the feelings of the speaker.
• Address mixed messages to, again, help the speaker explain what he or she is feelings and to help you get a clearer picture of these feelings.
The other part of empathy is the ability to let the other person know that you are in fact empathizing with him or her, that you do feel (to some degree at least) what he or she is feeling. Simple attentive postures and focused eye contact will tell the other person that you are trying to empathize. Saying, “I can see what you’re feeling” or “you must have been really hurting to do what you did” will further help the person see that you are empathizing and this will likely foster deeper and more meaningful communication about these feelings. Do be careful here, however. Most people who are experiencing deep feelings—take grief at the death of a loved one as an example—will resent others who imply that they know what the grief stricken is going through. To say, “I know exactly how you’re feeling” or “I can feel your pain” may be well-intended but may actually generate negative feelings. After all, you really don’t know what the person is feeling. The best advice here, it seems, is to be honest—say what you’re feeling and not what you think the other person wants to hear.
One communication expert suggests that empathy is best expressed in two distinct parts: thinking empathy and feeling empathy (Bellafiore, 2005). In thinking empathy you express an understanding of what the person means. For example, when you paraphrase someone’s comment, showing that you understand the meaning the person is trying to communicate, you’re communicating thinking empathy. The second part is feeling empathy; here you express your feeling of what the other person is feeling. You demonstrate a similarity between what you’re feeling and what the other person is feeling. Often you’ll respond with both thinking and feeling empathy in the same brief response; for example, when a friend tells you of problems at home, you may respond by saying, for example, Your problems at home do seem to be getting worse. I can imagine how you feel so angry at times.
Although empathy is usually considered as a positive quality of communication, there is some evidence to show that it has a negative side. For example, people are most empathic with those who are similar—racially and ethnically as well as in appearance and social status. The more empathy you feel toward your own group (and to people who are like you), the less empathy—possibly even the more hostility—you may feel toward other groups. The same empathy that increases your understanding of your own group may decrease your understanding of other groups. So while empathy may encourage group cohesiveness and identification, it can also create dividing lines between “us” and “them” (Angier, May 9, 1995, New York Times).