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What is empathy?

Empathy Merriam-Webster. (n.d.a). Empathy. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.
is commonly defined as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. It is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another person.
Theresa Wiseman’s Wiseman, T. (1996). A concept analysis of empathy. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 23(6), 1162–1167.
work with empathy found that empathy is based to four defining requirements:
  1. To be able to see the world as others see it
  2. To be nonjudgmental
  3. To understand another person’s feelings
  4. To be able to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings
Empathy is a skill. It is a habit you can cultivate throughout your life and use
“as a radical force for social transformation”. Krznaric, R. (2012, November 27). Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People. Greater Good Magazine.


To help you recognize and expand your empathetic potential, Roman Krznaric, a public philosopher, academic and empathy advisor to organizations such as Oxfam and the United Nations, shares the
six habits of highly empathetic people: Krznaric, R. (2012, November 27). Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People. Greater Good Magazine.


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Cultivate curiosity about strangers
Try to understand the world inside the head of another person without becoming an examiner. Instead, be an interested inquirer.
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Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
Collective labels (ex. disabled, Muslim, gay, etc.) prevent you from appreciating people’s individuality. Challenge your prejudices and preconceptions by searching for commonalities rather than differences.
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Try another person’s life
Conduct your own experiments by participating in experiences that are different from your own (ex. attend the service of a faith different from your own, spend a week living and volunteering in a less privileged community, etc.).
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Listen hard and open up
Instead of just hearing another person’s words, try to be present to the feelings and needs they’re experiencing and make yourself vulnerable by sharing your thoughts and feelings.
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Inspire mass action and social change
Empathy can be a mass phenomenon that drives social change (ex. Black Lives Matter, Me Too Movement, etc.).
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Develop an ambitious imagination
It’s not enough to empathize with people who are living on the social margins or who are suffering. You need to also empathize with “enemies” – with people whose beliefs you don’t share or whose actions you don’t understand.

Empathy is not…

Although the terms empathy and sympathy appear in similar contexts, they do not have the same meaning. This might seem obvious, but are you able to articulate the difference between empathy and sympathy? What actions and words represent empathy versus sympathy? And how is empathy different from compassion?

In general, sympathy is sharing, and empathy is understanding. This distinction can be best understood by considering the origins of the two words: sympathy is constructed from the Greek word sym, which means together, and pathos, which
refers to Merriam-Webster. (n.d.b). What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.
“feeling or emotion, [and] is used to describe when one person shares the same feelings of another”. It can involve experiencing a common or shared feeling, but, more often than not, sympathy takes the form of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy is also based on the word pathos, but in conjunction with the Greek word em, which means in. Empathy initially emerged as the translation of a German psychological term Einfühlung, which literally means
“feeling in”. Lanzoni, S. (2015, October 15). A Short History of Empathy. The Atlantic.
With empathy, you can imagine or understand another person’s feelings without having been in the same situation. For example, although you may not have experienced racism, you can understand and relate to another person’s feelings of alienation, loneliness, and anger based on other experiences with these emotions. Empathy requires a certain emotional distance, which
Susan Lazoni Lanzoni, S. (2015, October 15). A Short History of Empathy. The Atlantic.
describes as the ability to “appreciate the other person’s feelings without yourself becoming so emotionally involved that your judgment is affected”. This emotional distance explains how empathy can serve as a
protective factor Turgoose, D., Glover, N., Barker, C., Maddox, L., & Turgoose, D. (2017). Empathy, compassion fatigue, and burnout in police officers working with rape victims. Traumatology, 23(2), 205–213.
against burnout and compassion-fatigue.

Dr. Brené Brown further distinguishes between empathy and sympathy by noting that “empathy fuels connection, [while] sympathy drives disconnection”. Empathy is “I feel with you”, whereas sympathy is “I feel bad for you”. Brené argues that empathy is a choice and that it’s a vulnerable choice because, to feel empathy, you need to recall, reflect on, and connect with uncomfortable feelings. When you are unable to make yourself vulnerable, you struggle to connect with others. Your own discomfort with the emotions that another person is expressing results in a sympathetic expression of pity that makes people feel even lonelier than before. In her short animation, Brené Brown offers one of the clearest explanations of empathy versus sympathy:


Empathy is also different from compassion, which literally means “to suffer together”. While compassion involves understanding and feeling another person’s emotions, it also elicits a desire to help. Although there is a time and place for compassion, it can become exhausting to take on another person’s emotional burden (i.e. compassion fatigue).

What is an empathy miss?

Empathy misses are common ways that people “get empathy wrong”. Empathy is a complex skill and sometimes your best intentions end up pushing people further away, leaving them feeling lonelier, more ashamed and more insecure than before. In her research,
Dr. Brené Brown Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. Random House.

Brown, B. (2019, August). Empathy. Brené Brown #daringclassrooms Hub.
identifies and explains the seven most common empathy misses in the following way:

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Empathy vs. Sympathy
The friend who responds with sympathy (“I feel so sorry for you”) rather than empathy (“I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there”).
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The Gasp and Awe
Collective labels (ex. disabled, Muslim, gay, etc.) prevent you from appreciating people’s individuality. Challenge your prejudices and preconceptions by searching for commonalities rather than differences.
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The Mighty Fall
The friend who sees you as perfect so they feel let down and disappointed about your imperfections (“I just never expected that from you. I didn’t think you would ever be someone who didn’t do well. What happened?”).
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The Block and Tackle
The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that they criticize you (“What happened?! What were you thinking?”).
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The Boots and Shovel
The friend who is all about making it better and, out of their own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually make terrible choices (“You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you”). They are trying so hard to make you feel better that they are unable to connect with your emotions.
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If You Think That’s Bad…
The friend who confuses “connection” with the opportunity to one-up you (“That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!”).
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I Can Fix That
The friend who immediately jumps to problem-solving rather than just being with you in your experience. Instead, ask the person, “What does support look like?” This gives the person the opportunity to say, “Just listening helps” or “Can you help me figure this out?”

What are the functions and benefits of feeling empathy?

Evolutionary theory de Waal, F. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59.
argues that the functions and benefits of empathy can be dated back to the origin of mammals and birds because the ability to perceive and match another animal’s emotional state increased animals’ concern for each other and led to altruistic behaviours that ultimately enhanced group survival. Today, empathy continues to have
two major roles: de Vignemont, F., & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: how, when and why? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(10), 435–441.
  1. Epistemological role: Empathy helps you anticipate other people’s actions and determine an appropriate response.
  2. Social role: Empathy forms the foundation of cooperative and prosocial behaviour and is necessary for effective communication. By enhancing cooperation, empathy can also be used as a tool to
    reduce social conflict. Rumble, A., Van Lange, P., & Parks, C. (2010). The benefits of empathy: When empathy may sustain cooperation in social dilemmas. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(5), 856–866.
In addition, Brené Brown identifies empathy as the
antidote to shame Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery.
– the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that you are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is an unspoken epidemic that thrives off of secrecy, silence, and judgment. But shame cannot survive being spoken - it cannot survive empathy.

Where can I learn more?

Roman Krznaric – The Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People

Greater Good Magazine – Empathy

Empathy Quiz

Brene Brown – Listening to Shame

Roots of Empathy – School Program

Learning Lab Video – What happens when empathy gets hard?

What will students learn?

By the end of this lesson students will be able to…

  • Distinguish between empathy, sympathy, and compassion
  • Verbalize their preferred method for demonstrating and receiving empathy
  • Identify empathy misses and circle back
References
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Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery.

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. Random House.

Brown, B. (2019, August). Empathy. Brené Brown #daringclassrooms Hub.

de Vignemont, F., & Singer, T. (2006). The empathic brain: how, when and why? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(10), 435–441. undefined

de Waal, F. (2008). Putting the altruism back into altruism: the evolution of empathy. Annual Review of Psychology, 59.

Greater Good Science Centre. (n.d.). What is Compassion? Greater Good Magazine.

Krznaric, R. (2012, November 27). Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People. Greater Good Magazine.

Lanzoni, S. (2015, October 15). A Short History of Empathy. The Atlantic.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.a). Empathy. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.b). What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. undefined

Rumble, A., Van Lange, P., & Parks, C. (2010). The benefits of empathy: When empathy may sustain cooperation in social dilemmas. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(5), 856–866. undefined

Turgoose, D., Glover, N., Barker, C., Maddox, L., & Turgoose, D. (2017). Empathy, compassion fatigue, and burnout in police officers working with rape victims. Traumatology, 23(2), 205–213.  

Wiseman, T. (1996). A concept analysis of empathy. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 23(6), 1162–1167. undefined

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