Feeling what other feel
Empathy is the ability to not only detect what others feel but also to experience that emotion yourself.
This can be both a bane and a boon. If you can read another person’s emotions then you can both avoid making a faux pas and also utilize their state to move them in another direction. When people are in emotional states their ability to decide is often significantly impaired. Thus you cannot expect aroused people to make rational choices at this time.
Empathy is a bane if you end up experiencing all the bad feelings of everyone around you. This is one of the problems that therapists and other carers have to handle.
It’s not sympathy
Empathy and sympathy are very close and are sometimes used as synonyms. The easiest way to separate them is to remember that empathy is about feelings whilst sympathy is about actions. Thus you may empathize with another person and then act on this by telling them how sorry or happy you feel for them.
Empathetic people are often very sympathetic – they can hardly stop themselves as they really do feel for the other person.
A person who is sympathetic but empathetic may appear a little shallow, as they are less likely to show an emotional connection. ‘Terribly sorry and all that, old chap’ they might say, in a friendly but relatively cold voice.
It’s definitely not psychopathy. A defining element of a psychopath is that they do not and probably cannot empathize with other people. They are often good at imitating this, but in doing so they are using it in a cold and manipulative way.
This lack of empathy is one thing that makes a psychopath so dangerous. If we cannot empathize with others then we are unlikely to care about them. Psychopaths can this easily objectify other people, treating them like ‘things’ and even killing them without any remorse.
It has many benefits
The value of empathy comes not from understanding the other person’s feelings, but what you do as a result of this.
Empathy connects people together
When you empathize with me, my sense of identity is connected to yours. As a result, I feel greater in some way and less alone. I may well, as a result, also start to empathize more with you.
In a therapeutic situation, having someone else really understand how you feel can be a blessed relief, as people with emotional problems often feel very much alone in their different-ness from other people. The non-judgmental quality can also be very welcome.
Therapeutically, it can be a very healing experience for someone to empathize with you. When someone effectively says ‘I care for you’, it also says ‘I can do that, I can care for myself.’
Empathy builds trust
Empathy displayed can be surprising and confusing. When not expected, it can initially cause suspicion, but when sustained it is difficult not to appreciate the concern. Empathy thus quickly leads to trust.
Empathy closes the loop
Consider what would happens if you had no idea what the other person felt about your communications to them. You might say something, they hated it, and you continued as if they understood and agreed. Not much persuasion happening there!
The more you can empathize, the more you can get immediate feedback on what they are experiencing of your communications with them. And as a consequence, you can change what you are saying and doing to get them to feel what you want them to feel.
So how do you do it? How do you find out what other people are feeling? All you have to go on are what they say, how they say it and what they do, which can also be described as ‘words, music and dance’.
If you want to move someone, detecting their emotional state is the first step. If you can feel that state then that detection is even more accurate. When you can sense their emotion, you can then use this to move them in the direction you want them to take.
The trick in spotting feelings is to pay close attention to changes in the other person in response to external events. If you say ‘How are you?’ and the corners of their mouth turn down and their voice tone goes flat, then you might detect that all is not well.
The better you are at spotting small changes, the greater your potential ability at empathizing. Watch for small changes on the face. Watch for lower-body movements when the upper-body is under conscious control. Listen for tension in the voice and emphasis on specific words. Listen for emotional words.
To avoid getting swamped by their emotions learn to dip in and out of the association that makes you feel what they do. Go in, test the temperature and then get out to a place where you can think more rationally.
Unless you are really sure, it can be a good idea to reflect back to the other person what you are sensing of their feelings, to check that you have got it right. After all, the only person who can confirm empathy is the person whose emotions are being sensed.
Reflecting back itself has an effect, typically leading the other person to appreciate that you really care about them and hence increasing their trust in you.
Empathy is far more effective when it is offered, as opposed to when people ask for empathy (in which case a negotiation exchange dynamic is set up).
By the way, The usual caveat applies here – taking advantage of someone who is upset breaks many social rules and negative manipulation is likely to lead to betrayal effects.