The Art of Empathy
- Friday, August 27, 2004
No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted – Aesop
Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything good in the world. – Helen Keller
Angela teetered as she walked across a medical conference room, thighs chafing, sweat glands sweating. She tried to squeeze into a regular-size chair, but her lumpy hips snagged on the arms. She moved to an extrawide armless chair, but then she couldn’t cross her plumped-out legs.
A dietitian helped her climb aboard a stationary bicycle that had been fitted with an oversize seat. But when Angela tried to pedal, thick, doughy rolls of abdominal tissue pressed against her fleshy thighs, impeding movement.
“Every move I made was an effort,” Angela, 35, later admitted. By then, however, she was slimmed down to her actual weight: 110 pounds.
Angela had been zipped into a bulky beige “empathy suit,” designed to help medical personnel better understand the plight of their obese patients. The suit weighs only 30 pounds, but it feels heavier, and effectively blimps out small, low-fat people like Angela. Its sheer heft and bulk is intended to give them a new, deepened understanding of the workaday world of the obese.
Does it work? You bet. Angela saw first hand that even a simple movement such as walking may be challenging for the obese. Having worn the suit “makes me feel more respectful, more aware of their feelings,” she says.
That’s the power of self-giving love – putting oneself in the skin of another. Take any profession…teaching second graders, for example. You can improve a teacher’s effectiveness by having her walk through her classroom on her knees. As she sees that space from a second grader’s perspective, she will be better equipped to teach them.
Or how about serving fast food? The major chains spend bundles of money sending “fake customers” into their stores to see it as they do. Advertising firms on Madison Avenue make their living by putting themselves in the customer’s shoes.
Growing churches are growing because they study the experience of a first-time visitor, and the pastor imagines what it is like to sit in the pew.
Disney World’s “cast members” know that guests will average sixty contact opportunities in a single day at their theme park, and they want to make each of them a magic moment; so they continually work at empathizing with families.
And, of course, a counselor wouldn’t last a day without practicing empathy. How well we know!
The point is that empathy – the ability to accurately see the world through another’s eyes – is at the heart of true understanding and the ability to extend self-giving love. Whether it be in medicine, business, education, or entertainment, empathy is a major determiner of success. More importantly, when it comes to our most important relationships, empathy is essential. Without empathy, healthy relationships are impossible. Self-giving love is null and void.
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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