What is Empathy?

See also: Active Listening.

Empathy is a term that is often misunderstood. This page attempts to describe 'empathy' and suggest ways that we can become more empathetic towards others. Empathy is perhaps the most advanced of all communication skills.

Our Definition:
'Empathy is the ability to see the world as another person, to share and understand another person’s feelings, needs, concerns and/or emotional state.'

Empathy is a selfless act, it enables us to learn more about people and relationships with people - it is a desirable skill beneficial to ourselves, others and society.   Phrases such as ‘being in your shoes’ and ‘soul mates’ imply empathy - empathy has even been likened to a spiritual or religious state of connection with another person or group of people.

I call him religious who understands the suffering of others.

Mahatma Gandhi


Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.

Tim Minchin

Being empathetic requires two basic components - effective communication and a strong imagination; shared experiences can also help you to empathise. 

Empathy is a skill that can be developed and, as with most interpersonal skills, empathising (at some level) comes naturally to most people.  You can probably think of examples when you have felt empathy for others or when others have been empathetic towards you.  Imagine a colleague becomes stressed at work due to an unfortunate situation in their personal life; their productivity falls and deadlines are missed.  If you were empathetic you might try to relieve work pressures and offer to help out where you could.  You could try to imagine how it must feel to be that person and understand why their work commitments were not being met.


Effective Communication

Understanding is the desired outcome or goal in any communication process.

Basic understanding is easily achieved but a deeper understanding is the result of effective communication.  This involves overcoming the various barriers to communication, being able to express yourself effectively verbally and non-verbally, by active listening, clarification and other interpersonal skills.


Strong Imagination

In addition to effective communication good powers of imagination are required to empathise with others.

Everybody sees the world differently, based on their experiences, their up-bringing, culture, religion, opinions and beliefs.  In order to empathise with another person you need to see the world from their perspective and therefore need to use some imagination as to what their perspective is based on, how they see the world and why they see it differently from you.  Many people find it easier to empathise with people who are closer to them and have more shared experiences and views.

We have all been exposed to news stories of drought and famine in Africa, we can feel sorry for those affected and may be able to help in some way.  We hear stories of people walking across the desert to become refugees in a neighbouring country or region, see the pictures of flies buzzing around children with matchstick arms and swollen stomachs, can we emphasise?   The information we are receiving via the media is limited and we don’t have all the facts.  If we have never lived in a desert and have had very few shared experiences with the people in question then our imaginations cannot accurately fill in the gaps of information and enable us to fully empathise.   More likely we feel sympathetic or pity for the people concerned.


Empathy is Not Sympathy

There is an important distinction between empathy and sympathy.

We offer our sympathy when we imagine how a situation or event was difficult or traumatic to another person, we may use phases like, ‘I am very sorry to hear that’ or ‘If there is anything I can do to help…’, we feel pity or sorry for the other person.  This is how many people would react to the famine example above, there is nothing wrong with sympathy, and it can help to offer closure.  Perhaps by sending a donation to a charity to help with the famine we can think, ‘I’ve done my bit’ and forget about it.  To empathise is to feel how others feel, to see the world as they do.  Empathy with the people in the example above would require, for many of us living in the West, a leap of imagination.

Towards Empathy

It may not always be easy, or even possible, to empathise with others but through good communication skills and some imagination we can work towards more empathetic feelings.  Research has suggested that individuals who can empathise enjoy better relationships with others and greater well-being through life.

I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the steelworker who's been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Barrack Obama - 2006

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