Empathy and being empathetic

What is empathy?

Empathy is best described as the mental capacity to understand what someone else may be feeling. Empathy is, therefore, often picked up on via visual cues, such as seeing the distress of someone else. In other cases, it can be much more intuitive, however. The ability to show empathy is desirable because it means being able to create a deeper bond with others. When someone is empathetic towards you, it can be a comfort. Remember that empathetic thoughts mean you put yourself in someone else's shoes and see it from their point of view. It is not simply the ability to spot a different emotional state in someone else.

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 What are the main types of empathy?

Psychologists often refer to three classes of empathy – affective, cognitive and somatic. The first type is the most common. It relates to emotional understanding and means that appropriate responses can be made. On the other hand, cognitive empathy means being able to perceive the wider mental state of another. It might mean being able to second-guess what someone else might do and anticipate accordingly. Crucially, this type of empathetic class could be equally applied to a fictional character as much as a real person. Finally, somatic empathy means mirroring the physical state of another, such the overwhelming desire to weep when you see someone else crying.

Why do we feel empathy?

Although some people have little empathetic emotions, most people experience it, especially in heightened emotional states. Theories vary as to why people are empathetic. It certainly seems to act as a social glue by allowing people to understand how others in their society may be feeling or thinking without the need for verbal communication. Anger is a typical empathetic response to seeing someone being mistreated which may link at a profound level to our sense of social justice, for example. Some people with certain conditions, such as Asperger's syndrome or autism, may have a diminished capacity for empathy. That means they need to develop alternative methods for 'reading' others that empathetic people find is natural to them.

Is there such a thing as too much empathy?

Those of us who are hypersensitive to the emotions of others can often feel overwhelmed by their empathetic feelings. Some people might also be overwhelmingly sensitive to the feelings of someone in a film or tv-show who is going through hardship. Although it is rare, some people report that they actually feel physical pain when they are close to others who are in emotional distress. In the main, however, anyone with empathetic emotions knows when to limit their support for others. This is because they also sense when their sympathy is no longer wanted or needed – thanks to empathy, of course!

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What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

It is worth mentioning that sympathy is a distinct emotion and not the same as empathy, although both words are related to the Greek word 'pathos' (feelings or emotions). Sympathy implies pity, whereas, on the other hand, empathy implies understanding. The two are oftentimes confused, but being empathic means understanding and imagining someone else's feelings even if we don't experience it ourself; kind of the ability to emotionally put yourself in someone else's shoes. Sympathy is more about being able to take part in someone's emotional state or feelings about something, understand how they might feel sadness over a loss for instance, and share it with them.

Who needs empathy?

Anyone who wants to understand the point of view of others will require some capacity for empathetic thinking. This means that it is essential for certain types of job where being able to imagine what it is like for other people is a daily occurrence. In short, this is any job which might involve interacting with other people outside of strictly controlled environments. An example of this sort of job would be a police officer who, in the course of his or her daily duties, would be interacting with a wide range of people in almost limitless situations. People who work in the caregiving sector or as medical professionals should also have a great deal of empathy. In fact, the only people who don't really need it at all as a part of their working lives are people who work alone and outside of a conventional team structure. Even so, such people are likely to need some empathetic skills for their personal lives, if not their professional ones.

What is artificial empathy?

Sometimes referred to as AE, artificial empathy is a branch of computer science in the field of artificial intelligence. The idea behind it is to develop a software system that can interact with people in such a way that the algorithms are able to function in a seemingly empathetic manner. This approach is mostly used in the development of so-called assistive robots that might be deployed in care homes or within healthcare institutions. With robots that can chat to people and understand many of the nuances of human behaviours, so it is hoped that technology will be able to help people get through tough times in their lives and even overcome social problems, such as geriatric loneliness. Currently, research into AE is primarily centred on the ability to 'read' human body language, facial expressions and how emotion comes into speech. As such, these systems are trying to replicate the sort of empathetic behaviour that real people display among themselves.

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Why is empathy important in leadership?

Leaders who lack empathetic understanding can carry on being leaders and even succeed in fields like business and politics without it. On the other hand, any leader who lacks empathy with those they are leading will necessarily be limited in their effectiveness. Some leaders like to lead by example and expect others to follow them. If this works, then lacking empathetic behaviour may not necessarily be problematic. However, if some people choose not to follow or comply with a leader only in a partial sense, then the leader will need to try and work out why if they are to change the situation. In this regard, being able to understand what is motivating followers and to address underlying issues will necessarily mean being able to think empathetically. In other words, empathetic leadersip simply tend to be more effective in creating the right sort of conditions to get other people on board with whatever it is they are trying to achieve.

When might empathy be a problem?

Some psychologists will refer to empathetic reactivity, a situation that can occur when too much emotional intelligence is on offer. In situations like this, some people will find that they are so sensitive to the emotions of others that they go through some of them in a much more direct manner than they would like. So, someone who is highly empathetic who is in close contact with people who are going through grief or a relationship breakdown may feel many of the same emotions as them even if those events do not affect them directly. In turn, this can lead to the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which – if it were to be left unchecked – could end up with a psychologically unhealthy state being reached. Some people describe this phenomenon as though their emotional life has been hijacked and, in the worst cases, it can lead to emotional burnout.

Is empathy a skill?

Some people consider their ability to empathise to be a quality that they have possessed, to some degree or other, from birth. However, for others, it is something that is more like a skill that can be honed over time. Certainly, people who use their empathetic understanding in professional situations often report that they get better at using it as time passes which tends to make it more like a skill than otherwise. That being said, the truth is probably a little more complex, and empathy is better understood as a quality that can be built upon with some learning. In other words, some people will be more naturally empathetic than others, but everyone is able to improve their empathetic understanding if they are committed to learning how.

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Can empathy be taught?

As you have just read, empathetic understanding is something that can be acquired over time. Most people will develop their empathetic skills by slowing down a little and more fully engaging with what others are saying and doing. A typical example might be to look people in the eye to gain a truer understanding of their emotional state while talking to them. Most academics now agree that there are techniques that can be taught that will improve empathetic understanding. For example, learning about how body posture can be interpreted will often make people more empathetic. In the medical profession, it has been discovered that doctors who are taught to recognise and diagnose pathologies will often end up being less empathetic throughout their training rather than acquiring more emotional understanding. As such, many medical courses now include some formal teaching on how doctors can better relate to their patients as well as deal with their ailments.

Is empathy genetic?

Scientific work suggests that levels of empathy are partially accountable according to genes. Certainly, some adrenergic receptors are known to be in play when people are exhibiting empathetic behaviours. When people are shown emotionally charged images in research programmes, these receptors tend to be more active in more empathetic people. Although these receptors are known to have some genetic link, the exact nature of it is still not established. As such, you might inherit your empathetic persona from your parents, or you might develop your receptors by simply being more empathetic. Today, more work is ongoing into so-called mirror neurons in the brain. These are also more active among empathetic people but, again, any direct link to genes is not yet fully understood. What is known, however, is that empathetic understanding is tied to brain function because people with certain types of neural trauma tend to exhibit less empathy than others.

Are there gender differences in empathy?

People who consider themselves to be female are known to score more highly on the empathy quotient self-reporting system than males. Whether this is because they are more empathetic or it down to some other social phenomenon based on gender identities is not known, however. Certainly, in some other ways of modelling how empathetic, or otherwise, people are, males come out with higher average scores than females. That said, children tend to score more highly than adults regardless of their gender. As such, any differences in empathy according to an adult's gender status may be more down to cultural issues than which sex they were born as.

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Empathy Summary

It is perfectly possible to understand empathy as an entirely intellectual response to an emotion that is observed in another. For example, you might describe your reaction to seeing a child crying out in pain as empathetic because you understand that the child needs to be helped and for any injury to be attended to. Nevertheless, most people would say that empathetic understanding must go a bit further than simply knowing that some action is required. Indeed, it was two nineteenth-century German philosophers, Hermann Lotze and Robert Vischer, who coined the term empathy in its Germanic form, Einfühlung. This word implies more than mere understanding of the emotional state of others but the ability to feel what they are going through or – perhaps more accurately – to know what such a feeling might be like because of our own emotional memory.

In this sense, seeing a child cry and acting appropriately might not be seen as empathetic at all. However, feeling something of the pain of the child – even if it is in a slightly removed or imagined sense – would be more empathetic. Consequently, dealing with the source of the pain and treating the physical injury that might have caused it would be one thing but helping the child to recover emotionally would be quite another. By reassuring the child, perhaps with soothing words or touch, we can show that we understand the emotional side of what he or she is going through, thereby helping to demonstrate that the child is not on its own, emotionally speaking.

By showing that people are emotionally connected to one another, even small children can deal with complex emotional states more easily. Although this example of helping a child is just that – an example of empathy – it can help to explain why some empathetic people are more in-tune with others emotionally. Even if the concept is widely understood intellectually, it necessarily takes some feeling.

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