Empathy: How Can We Warm Others If Our Hearts Be Cold?

An intimate look at empathy: Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

“You don’t care because you don’t really know how I feel!” This is an all-to-familiar statement we, ourselves, may have used several times to express our frustration over not being truly understood and over that nagging feeling of not being really cared for. This is usually highlighted when we are at our lowest moments. Shifting to the other side of the coin, have we been guilty of expressing concern through perfunctory statements? Have we been struggling with how to really comfort someone or to genuinely express concern? How can we best express that we mean it when we say we care?The answer lies not in a list of good manners and right conduct but in the area of our emotional intelligence which is the capacity to empathise. Empathy is one of the social competencies of emotional intelligence (EI).

How does psychology define empathy? The earliest and simplest scientific definition of empathy dates back to 1880 when German psychologist Theodore Lipps coined it as “einfuhlung” (literally, “in-feeling”) referring to to the emotional appreciation of another’s feelings. It’s meaning slowly evolved through years of researches to include its different facets and its important role in counselling and therapy: It is the ability to imagine how other persons feel, to sense their perspectives and to have an active interest in their concerns. As such, it involves understanding and an attempt to live in the same way.In layman’s terms it is “putting oneself into another’s shoes”, or “seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.”

Clearly, empathy is the harbinger for prosocial or altruistic behaviour. It motivates us to help and protect others even to the point of doing such sacrificially. It enables us to be socially competent and to have meaningful and functional relationships.

People who lack the capacity to empathise usually:

– stereotype others,
– show no understanding, or misunderstand, or are surprised by others’ feelings or actions,
– often come into conflict,
– cannot “read” people and what they are thinking and feeling,
– tend to act without considering how others might feel about something,
– come across as indifferent or uncaring.

On the other hand, emphatic people are:

– attentive to and are able to attune to a wide range of emotional signals.
– listen for and are sensitive to the felt, but unspoken emotions in a person or a group.
– sensitive to and are understanding of other people’s perspectives and feelings – they can “walk a mile in the other person’s moccasins.”
– able to help the other person or the group based on an accurate understanding of their needs and feelings.

YouTube melted millions of hearts when the mom of 10-month-old baby Mary Lynne Leroux uploaded her unforgettable, emotional bonding moment with her baby daughter. The scene was recorded by her mom to capture and to share to the world her daughter’s quite extraordinary capacity to absorb the emotions she generated through her soulful singing and probably her facial expressions. But is this unique to her daughter?

Studies in the 70’s and 80’s revealed that, as early as 18 to 72 hours following birth, infants already demonstrate distress reaction to another infant’s cry. They also concluded that they are not just simply responding to or are annoyed by the noise but that this particular behaviours are precursors to empathic concern. This only proves that people are born with the capacity to empathise.

Authorities in the field of emotional intelligence consider empathy as a teachable and a learnable skill. The following developmental tips will help us tune ourselves in to a genuine demonstration of concern and to acts that will uplift others:

 Listening is the key to empathy: Quiet the mind, still the inner clamour, and listen deeply to what is behind the other person’s words. Be sensitive to the other person’s needs that may not be clearly expressed (i.e., to be respected, to be included, to be acknowledged?)
 Identify underlying concerns that are not explicitly stated.
 Hear the emotions that accompany an expressed statement.
 Listen when people approach you to express their feelings (don’t be too busy to talk about what’s important to them; don’t brush them off).
 Acknowledge what you think you’ve heard. Paraphrase, repeat back, and clarify the emotions you think you are hearing (i.e., “Sounds like you’re feeling frustrated,” or ”Sounds like you’re pretty excited by this project.”)
 Withhold judgments; when temped to criticise or dismiss the opinions of another, stop.
 Step back and consider, on an emotional level as well as on a cognitive level, what the other person may be experiencing and what merits another’s point of view may have.

The study on newborn babies also revealed that the degrees of their emotional responses differ in much the same way as those of the adults. In their research paper, “The Development of Empathy: How, When, and Why,” M. McDonald & Daniel S. Messinger noted that the following environmental and biological factors affect empathy capacity:

“…. genetics, facial mimicry and imitation, subserving areas of the brain such as the mirror neuron system and the limbic system, child temperament, parenting factors such as warmth, parent-child synchrony, and other qualities of the parent-child relationship.”

We all go through different experiences in life but there is one fact that serves as a common denominator in our relationship with others: We cannot warm others if our hearts be cold. A heart warmed by the capacity to empathise has the capability to pump meaning, satisfaction, and even progress in our social life. In fact, behaviourists consider it as a distinguishing hallmark of humanity.

If you think you need assistance in this area, our team of Emotional Intelligence experts can help. Contact us today.