Empathy and communicating to our fellow human beings
Empathy is the act of communicating to our fellow human beings that we understand how they are feeling and what makes them feel that way (Hogan, 1969). As American psychologist Carl Rogers says in his book A Way of Being (1980):
An empathic way of being with another person has several facets. It means entering the private perceptual world of the other, and becoming thoroughly at home in it. It involves being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person, to the fear or rage or tenderness or confusion or whatever he or she is experiencing. It means temporarily living in the other’s life, moving about in it delicately without making judgments; it means sensing meanings of which he or she is scarcely aware, but not trying to uncover totally unconscious feelings, since this would be too threatening. It includes communicating your sensing of the person’s world as you look with fresh and unfrightened eyes at the elements of which he or she is fearful. It means frequently checking with the person as to the accuracy of your sensing, and being guided by the responses you receive. You are a confident companion to the person in his or her inner world. By pointing to the possible meanings in the flow of another person’s experiencing, you help the other to focus on this useful type of referent, to experience the meanings more fully, and to move forward in the experiencing.
A synonym for empathy is communicated understanding. When we are convinced that others fully understand us, without judging us for how we are feeling, questioning why we are reacting that way, or advising us to feel differently, we experience a wonderful sense of acceptance. The process of empathy involves the unconditional acceptance of the individual in need of help; judgments and evaluation of feelings are never offered (Pike, 1990).
This nonjudgmental reception by our fellow human beings is accompanied by feelings of relief and freedom. Once we know we have been understood and accepted, we do not have to struggle to get our point across, nor we do we have to justify our reactions to others. When we receive empathic responses, we can relax because we no longer fear being misunderstood or rejected. Acknowledgement of our feelings reassures us that we have a right to be who we are. We may wish to change, and we might change our feelings and reactions in the future, but there is nothing so accepting as having others verbally acknowledge that they understand our feelings.
Another skill associated with empathy is active listening. We can listen passively or actively. Listening passively includes attending nonverbally with eye contact, head nodding, and verbally encouraging phrases such as “uh huh,” “mm-hmm,” “I see,” or “yeah.”(book) It is easy to delude ourselves into thinking that, when we listen passively, we truly communicate that we understand. Passive listening, however, does not include an actual articulation of others’ feelings, so it lacks the conviction and reassurance of active listening. The receivers of passive listening have to assume, hope, or pretend, that they are being understood. Active listening removes this guesswork. It specifically provides speakers with the knowledge that we know how they are feeling and understand why. Receivers of active listening feel guaranteed that they have been understood.
Natural empathy is a basic human endowment, an intrinsic ability to understand the feelings of others (Pike, 1990). The goal of empathy is to aid in the establishment of a helping relationship. It is not empathy by itself that is beneficial, but the intention of the giver and the perception of the receiver.
Empathy is more than a state of mind or attitude (Davis, 1990). As a concept, empathy is a value-neutral tool that can be used for destructive or manipulative purposes (Hogan, 1969). To be used in a therapeutic or curative way, it must be used to accept, confirm, and validate the total experience of others (Pike, 1990). It must be used with the intention of helping others.
The verbal part of skill of empathy is reflecting to the understanding of ones feelings and the reasons for their emotional reactions (Davis, 1990). The goal is to offer a verbal reflection that is accurate, without exaggerating or minimizing what you are being told. Ideally, the feeling words you use to match what the speaker intended; the nuance and strength of the feeling need to be expressed (Hogan, 1969). Your reflection of the rationale for the speakers feeling specifically needs to be what the speaker intended. The two qualities of verbal empathy that have just been described are accuracy and specificity. It is unrealistic, however, to think that after knowing a person for a short time you can always meet these goals.
Being empathic does not mean repeating precisely what others have told you(book). Parroting only irritates speakers and implies that you have not really processed or understood their situation and subsequent reaction. When one responds empathically they should choose their own words and respond in their own style, yet still be accurate and specific.
The nonverbal features of empathy are just as important as the verbal aspects. For example, a singer might correctly enunciate each word of a song yet fail to express the mood of the piece; thus the song lacks vitality. (Rogers, 1980) Just as an audience would feel unconnected on hearing an emotionless song, so disengagement can occur when empathy is delivered without warmth and genuineness. It is possible to articulate a technically perfect empathic response that meets the criteria for accuracy and specificity but does not positively affect the other person (Hogan, 1969). Only when your empathy is accompanied by warmth and genuineness do the true caring and concern for what you are experiencing for others come across. It is important, however, not to overplay your warmth to the point that your intended empathy seems gushy or too sympathetic. Being empathic is not the equivalent to feeling sorry for another person. Empathy is free of the judgment of condolence. It is a value-free message showing that one understands the other person’s point of view. The warmth you express with empathy should convey genuine caring, not honeyed insincerity.
Feeling genuine empathy for others is essential. If you do not care about how your acquaintances are feeling, then using an empathetic response would be incongruent. Even if the verbal part of your empathy is correct, your nonverbal behavior can give away your lack of not caring. Usually our expression of warmth is diminished when we do not genuinely care about the feelings of others. This diminished warmth may speak louder than the words of our empathic response, so that the message received is one of not caring. The mixed message of caring words and uncaring gestures can be very confusing.
In summary, empathic communication requires a specific and accurate verbal response accompanied by genuine caring and a receivable level of warmth. These attributes of empathy must be packaged in ones’ own natural style of speaking. In an essay of the lived of cancer, a woman writes: “The capacity to recognize and respond to others’ distress may be a deep and permeating element of a person’s characterological build. For those endowed with the capacity for empathy, its absence is perhaps unimaginable as color blindness or tone deafness are to those endowed with color perception and perfect pitch” (Charon, 1995).