The Art of Empathy
- Friday, August 27, 2004
Consider your contentment when another person senses what you are feeling without you having to say so. This is the essence of empathy. While we can have interesting conversations and smooth social exchanges without it, we will never enter the inner chambers of a person’s heart without empathy. It is the key to unlocking a person’s spirit at the most intimate and vulnerable levels.
If asking a string of quality questions is the equivalent of a B.A. in relationships, empathy will earn you your Ph.D. in the social arts. Empathy is evidence of relational brilliance.
In 1990 Yale psychologist Peter Salovey and the University of New Hampshire’s John Mayer coined the phrase “emotional intelligence” to describe qualities that bring human interactions to their peak of performance. Harvard psychologist and New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman brought the phrase into the national conversation with his groundbreaking book on the subject. He calls empathy our “social radar” and believes it operates at different levels. At the very least, empathy enables us to read another’s emotions. And at the highest levels, empathy is understanding the concerns that lie behind the person’s feelings.
The key to identifying and understanding another person’s emotional terrain, experts agree, is an intimate familiarity with one’s own. Goleman cites the research of Robert Levenson at the University of California at Berkeley as a prime example. Levenson brings married couples into his physiology lab for two discussions: a neutral talk about their day and a second fifteen-minute emotionally charged discussion concerning a disagreement.
Levenson records the husband’s and wife’s heart rate, muscle tension, changes in facial expressions, and so on. After the disagreement, one partner leaves. A replay of the talk is then narrated by the other partner, noting feelings on their end that were not expressed. Then the roles are reversed and that partner leaves, allowing the other person to narrate the same scene from their partner’s perspective.
This is where researchers found something extraordinary. Partners adept at empathizing were seen to mimic their partner’s body while they empathize. If the heart rate of the partner in the videotape went up, so did the heart rate of the partner who was empathizing; if the heart rate slowed down, so did that of the empathic spouse.
This phenomenon, called entrainment, demands we put aside out own emotional agendas for the time being to clearly receive the other person’s signals. For, as Goleman says, “When we are caught up in our own strong emotions, we are off on a different physiological vector, impervious to the more subtle cues that allow rapport.”
Putting aside out own emotional agenda for empathy’s sake brings us back to the question we posed earlier: What races through your head when you walk into a roomful of people? If you are not quietly asking yourself, How are these people doing? you will never provide the psychological space for empathy to do its work. But when you do, you will begin to enjoy relational connections at a depth you never knew was possible.
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