Home page Psychology blog How Empathetic Are You? Learning to Understand the Thoughts and Feelings of Others

How Empathetic Are You? Learning to Understand the Thoughts and Feelings of Others

24.06.2019 Author: psiholog pavel horoshutin

“I did not understand why the boss decided to reprimand me in the presence of other managers for failing to submit the report on time. After all, the situation with the protracted sick leaves of my colleagues, where I was left alone doing the work for three other people and dealing with day-to-day matters, was obvious to him. I was very offended; I felt anger boiling in me in response to his aggression. Only a few months later, after watching a video on Youtube, I realized that at that moment my boss was driven by anxiety and fear. Because he, like me, needed to report to higher management and admit that he did not complete the task. And he sort of transformed this fear into aggression towards me”.

– Tatyana, manager

Have you ever misunderstood the reactions and actions of others in response to your actions or any events? Is it easy for you to reach understanding and trust with loved ones? Do you have the feeling that you are alone, that they don’t listen to you? The answer to any of these questions depends on the degree of empathy that you and people from your environment have.
Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of another person, the interlocutor. Empathy also means the ability to put oneself in other person’s shoes, tendency towards compassion and the ability to understand someone else’s mood.

Each of us needs to be noticed, understood and supported. But sometimes in the rhythm of modern life we do not have time to pay attentive to each other.

There is an opinion that empathy is an innate quality that not everyone has, and without it a person is doomed to be selfish and disrespectful of feelings of other people. In fact, empathy can and should be learned. How to do this is described in the article.

Contents:

  1. Why aren’t all people empathic?
  2. Why we need empathy
  3. Is it possible to develop empathy?
  4. Types of empathy
  5. Levels of empathy
  6. How to develop empathy: a workshop
  7. Empathy development using the 7Spsy behavior modification technique 

Why aren’t all people empathic?

The reasons for the lack of empathy may lie in the features of character and temperament (egocentricity, aggressiveness, conflict-prone nature, pedantry, deceitfulness), sometimes – in emotions (irritation, hostility, intolerance, ignoring the feelings and words of another person in favor of our own), in the characteristics of profession (when immunity to the emotions of others is an objectively necessary condition for work).
Lack of susceptibility to emotions and feelings of others can also be a consequence of antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy) or a genetic disease (autism). In the latter case, our recommendations, unfortunately, will be powerless.

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Why we need empathy

what is empathy for

“Truth, charity and compassion will save the world”.

From a Buddhist parable

Empathy enriches our relationships with others. Possessing empathy, we understand the interlocutor’s experiences, are able to establish a deep connection by looking into his/her world. Our attitude to people determines the quality of our communication. Therefore, do not avoid paying attention to them.

Empathy can be considered as a necessary professional quality for many specialists. Empathy helps a psychologist understand the motives that guide the person who turns for help. A doctor showing empathy is able to give their patient something more than traditional medical care – to instill faith in recovery. A teacher helps a student cope with a difficult task and overcome the excitement before the exam, and parents – reassure their child in case of failure.

Another example: Imagine you are a mobile app developer. Your task is to create an application that works on the basis of the “panic button” for emergency assistance to adolescents who are victims of domestic violence. Without a deep understanding of the feelings that a person experiences at such a critical moment, and the mental elaboration of a possible situation and actions, you simply cannot do this work.

Empathy helps us in everyday social life: to negotiate, have interviews, build relationships in a team, be a friend, create harmonious relationships with a partner. By practicing empathy, we also learn to better understand our emotions.

Is it possible to develop empathy? 

“One day, late at night, my five-year-old son climbed into my bed.

“Hey, Gabe”, I whispered, pulling back and giving him room, “can’t sleep?”

“No, Mom, that’s not it”, he answered. “You’re upset. I thought you would feel better with me”.

From the book “The Spiritual Power of Empathy: Develop Your Intuitive Gifts” [1]

Indeed, we are not all equally sensitive, like little Gabe. But since empathy is a conscious compassion, it can be developed. In this case, an empathic person must be aware what feelings they experience reflect the emotions of other people, and what are their own. If there is no such understanding, that can’t be considered empathy in a healthy sense.

In practical psychology, there are many ways to develop empathy in an adult. One of such methods is the 7Spsy behavior modification technique.

Types of empathy 

According to the classification of psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are 3 types of empathy: cognitive, emotional and compassionate. [2] To explain the meaning of each type, let’s take an abstract situation as an example: a friend shares their experiences with you after breaking their relationship with a partner.

1. Cognitive empathy

This is the ability to understand how people feel, why they think in a certain way. Thanks to cognitive empathy, we become first-class negotiators – we know how to present information so that others perceive it correctly.

Cognitive empathy helps us to not ignore a friend’s message, but mentally ask questions and find answers for them based on what we already know: “How close were they? How much does he/she suffer? How will his/her life change now?”

2. Emotional (affective) empathy

This type of empathy is characterized by the ability to transfer other people’s feelings onto oneself. Some describe it this way: “I feel someone else’s pain in my heart”. Affective empathy promotes emotional rapprochement.

By showing emotional empathy, you can not only understand, but also share your friend’s feelings. You subconsciously feel or know from your own experience what a separation is, how painful it is. You imagine how you would feel if the situation happened to you.

3. Compassionate empathy (empathic concern)

Compassionate empathy is more than understanding others and sharing their feelings. It actually moves us to take action, to help however we can.

You can come to a friend and cook him/her some food, persuade him/her to take a short walk or a trip out of town or just stay close.

We examined only one clear example of empathy. In a broader sense, every contact with others is a chance to take a different point of view, share someone’s feelings and help. By increasing the number of such contacts, you are working to increase the level of your empathy.

Levels of empathy

empathy levels

“I saw him in this state for the first time when one day all the news sites reported a fire in the movie theater and dead children. He was sobbing lying on his back and clasping head in his hands. I literally saw his soul bursting with pain and compassion”.

From the story by Natalia about his husband

The basic level of empathy is a physiological feature – it is thanks to this a connection is established between infants and parents. When interaction with others ceases to be instinctive, empathy can develop, reaching various levels. Try to evaluate yours based on the descriptions below.

Low

A low level of empathy is manifested in the inability to empathize. Such a person is selfish, cares mainly about satisfying own interests and everyday needs.

Sociologists believe that the development of social media contributes to a decrease in the level of empathy, since communication on the Internet is increasingly becoming a substitute for real communication. Empathy arises on the basis of the synchronism inherent in our bodies as being similar within a single biological species. This explains why we laugh in response to someone’s laugh and yawn in response to another’s. Moreover, on social media we meet another people’s grief more often than in real life: we see records of car accidents and plane crashes; we receive requests for financial assistance for seriously ill children. Sometimes we find confirmation of fraudulent actions when raising funds for alleged surgery. Faced with this once, we stop trusting information, try to distance ourselves from disturbing messages, and become less empathetic.

Normal

A normal level of empathy is expressed in the fact that a person is ready to show sympathy at the right time for those who need it, but does not seek to fully understand their condition. We are all able to feel sorry for a person who failed. But not everyone is ready to take a really serious part in the fate of a stranger. We are more inclined to experience empathy for relatives and congeners. Separation instinct is inherent in a person: we divide our environment into “friends” and “strangers”, whether they are fans of an opposing football team, employees of a competitive company, representatives of an opposing political party or other social class.

In 1951 a psychologist Kurt Levin, formulated the so-called “Field Theory”, drawing an analogy with physical forces. A simplified understanding of the theory can be reduced to the fact that we are constantly in a certain social “field” – we have an established circle of contacts, inside of which we feel warm feelings towards others, we are pleased to communicate with “our people”. The more strangers around, the closer and tougher the borders of our “field” become, resulting in fewer reasons for a manifestation of empathy.

High

A person with a high level of empathy seeks to be most useful to those who are nearby, to help someone who is in trouble. Such a person knows how to listen and hear, will never remain indifferent to those around. He/she is generous and attentive to those who need to speak out, ready to share their opinions and give advice if asked about it. People around feel the power of empathy and often turn to such a person for help when something goes wrong with them or when they need a shoulder to cry on.Such person is characterized by observation skills and a subtle sense of people. He/she is sharply worried about reports on disasters, armed conflicts and accidents.

A psychotherapist Beatrice Miller notes: “Empathy can be used for many purposes, from selfless sympathy to manipulation, including as a strategy, for your own benefit. Nevertheless, one cannot live in harmony with others, whether a partner, family members or colleagues, without having this ability to a certain extent”. By increasing the level of empathy, person gains integrity, becomes more open and sociable. [3]

Increased 

Increased empathy is so strong that it can overshadow the feelings and interests of the empathic person. Happiness of a loved one becomes more important for him/her than own; he/she is inclined to absorb other people’s problems like a sponge. Often this leads to the fact that it is not easy to recognize what causes the discomfort – other people’s experiences or his/her own. Such person constantly puts himself/herself in the place of those who suffer greatly or, on the contrary, are incredibly happy, and experiences the same emotions that they do.

“Although empathy can give purpose to our lives, it can also be destructive”, Paul Ekman says. This is due to the fact that a person begins to subconsciously search for “points of application” of increased empathy, getting used to substituting their own emotions and feelings with others’. Such a person often becomes a victim of deception and manipulation, because he/she is unable to distinguish true feelings from false ones, trusting others more than himself/herself. [4]

If you think this description is most suitable for you, instead of developing it more, you need to correct the increased empathy. Remember your own feelings and interests – they also matter.

How to develop empathy: a workshop 

how to develop empathy

If, after reading the previous part, you came to the conclusion that your level of empathy is low, you should learn to empathize with people by communicating with them. Some of the tips below on how to increase the level of empathy will be useful to people with a normal level – they will help expand the circle of “our people”.

Exercise 1: “How are you?”

When asking your interlocutor about how things are going, try to catch not only the verbal answer, but also non-verbal signs. Body language and tone of voice can often tell more than words do, and sometimes even contradict them. If you are told that “everything is OK”, but the dejected appearance of the interlocutor indicates the opposite, try to carefully clarify: “It seems to me that something happened after all. Do you want to share with me?”

Exercise 2: “Turn on the intuition”

Listen not only with your mind, but also with your heart, trust your intuition. Empathy is a mental work, be prepared to learn it.

Exercise 3: “Here and now”

Talking face to face or communicating in the company, focus on the conversation; do not try to do other things. After all, didn’t you feel uncomfortable when the person you were talking to was flipping through the social media feed on their smartphone? Put the gadgets aside, take an open pose (without crossing your arms) and look into the speaker’s eyes.

Exercise 4: “Understand, but do not influence”

Try to understand what the words and feelings of the interlocutor mean, and let them come to their own conclusion without imposing your opinion. Express your point of view only in response to a direct request to do so if you are not sure that it will contribute to support.

Exercise 5: “Not about you”

You should not turn attention to yourself, for example, telling what you would do in a similar situation, or saying that this couldn’t have happened to you, because you are used to doing things in a different way.

Exercise 6: “Become a mirror”

Sometimes, in order to support a person, it is enough to “mirror” them: take a similar pose, catch and repeat some changes in facial expressions, use expressions like “I understand your feelings”, “I can imagine what it was like for you” in the conversation.

Exercise 7: “Respect others”

It is within your power to treat the opinion of the interlocutor respectfully and seriously, even if you cannot agree with them.

Exercise 8: “Imagine yourself in the shoes of others”

Try to imagine a person’s past experience. Think about what influenced the formation of his/her personality, how he/she came to the current habits, what would he/she like to achieve? In other words, try to stand in their place. This exercise can be practiced not only on real people, but also on characters from literature and movies.

Exercise 9: “Talking with a stranger”

Be attentive and curious to others: start a casual conversation with a stranger in a queue at the store or smile at the person sitting opposite you in the subway. Do not continue the conversation if you feel that the stranger is not inclined to communicate. You also show empathy by respecting their mood.

Exercise 10: “Collect evidence”

Try to dive into yourself and into the “black mirror” of your smartphone less. Pay attention to the world around you with a curiosity similar to that shown by a small baby when they start learning about the world or by a keen detective in search of evidence of a crime. 

Exercise 11: “Take care of yourself”

Pay attention to your own emotional and bodily reactions during the conversation: were you alarmed or inspired, was your breathing even or did your pulse increase? Watch your reactions with the same empathy you show for others.

Exercise 12: “Do good”

Find opportunities for volunteer work to better understand how to learn to empathize with people. For example, become an older friend for a teenager from an orphanage. This can be a very difficult and important decision, so you should carefully weigh pros and cons. There are many ways to take part in charity and, if you wish, you can find the right one for you. 

Empathy development using the 7Spsy behavior modification technique

If you are confused and cannot build harmonious relations with a partner, friends, team, perhaps the reason lies in a low level of empathy. As a rule, problems affect several areas of life at once, and to cope with them on your own is very difficult, sometimes impossible. In such cases, it is best to contact specialists in the field of behavioral psychology for help in solving problems.

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The 7Spsy behavior modification technique is a patented method based on the behavioral theories of I.P. Pavlov, A.A. Ukhtomsky and B.F. Skinner. The method allows you to adjust the mindset that prevents you from building relationships with others, replacing it with one that will increase the level of your empathy. In the framework of this method, a remote course is provided. Throughout the program, a psychologist will be in touch with you over the phone, through messenger or by e-mail. The work is carried out individually in strict confidentiality. By learning to be more empathetic you’ll be able to achieve your goals more easily and build serious relationships.

References:

  1. Dale S., “The Power of Empathy: how to develop your intuitive talents”, All, 2017.
  2. Three types of empathy: what is the difference and how to master them (http://www.psychologies.ru/standpoint/tri-vida-empatii-v-chem-raznitsa-i-kak-ih-osvoit/).
  3. The Dark Side of Empathy (http://www.psychologies.ru/self-knowledge/behavior/temnaya-storona-empatii/).
  4. Ekman P., “Psychology of emotions. I know how you feel”, Peter, 2010.