Understanding Empathy

By | November 8, 2022 | |

What is Empathy? Empathy can be simply defined as the ability or capacity to understand another person’s feelings.

It is important to understand that empathy does not imply agreement with the other person. In fact, empathy is a great precursor to disagree or have a different opinion on something. It’s often a soft starter for communication.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Although the two terms have entirely different meanings, they are often confused. In order to distinguish them, let’s break them down.

The feeling of sympathy is one of pity for another accompanied by relief that you do not have the same problems in your own life. Sympathy stems from our ego while empathy comes from the heart.

Empathy makes you give the other person space to express their own emotions. You provide a safe space for all their feelings including negative ones. While sympathy leads you to move into problem-solving mode. We begin to get judgemental, which not only belittles the other person’s problems, but also ignores their feelings.

Another significant difference between the two is that empathy is an appropriate emotion at any time. Being empathetic will bring you closer to others no matter what the circumstances. On the other hand, sympathy is only shown during difficult times, being empathetic is an attitude we can adopt at any time.

In order to understand Empathy, let’s look at each type in more detail.

1. Affective Empathy

This is the ability to respond appropriately to another person’s mental state.

There are various ways to develop affective empathy, some of which are seeking out new perspectives, acknowledging our biases, and trying to connect deeply with people instead of having surface-level talks.

2. Somatic Empathy

This type involves having a physical reaction in response to what someone else is feeling most often when it comes to sorrow or pain.

This may seem like a good thing since it allows you to reach out to others out of compassion, but in the long run, it becomes a burden.

3. Cognitive Empathy

This type of Empathy is one where you not only understand what the person is going through but also have a deeper understanding of the reason as well. If someone is hurting, you realize why they would feel that way in that particular situation.

Our cognitive empathy helps us relay information in a way that is most effective for the other person, so we become better communicators.

Let’s examine some of the barriers to empathy.

1. Cognitive Biases

It is difficult to see a situation for what it is when you allow cognitive biases to affect your perception of the world around you. This often gets in the way of understanding another person’s point of view and thus blocks your ability to empathize with them.

2. Dehumanization

When someone doesn’t meet your standards of normal, you tend to look at them differently and, subconsciously or consciously, begin to treat them like an outcast. This acts as a barrier, stopping you from being able to understand how they feel and show compassion.

3. Victim Blaming

We should rise above the tendency to blame the victim after a crime, especially in cases of rape and abuse. In spite of this basic human tendency, we need to fight it and change our mindset to help understand what victims go through and support them.

Thankfully, empathy is a skill that you can learn in due course of time. Let’s look at some of the tips to help practice empathy.

  • Avoid interrupting when someone is talking. Instead of trying to put your point across, aim to listen carefully and understand the other person’s point of view.
  • Remind yourself to have an open mind when talking to someone with a different perspective.
  • Build bonds with people so they begin to confide in you. This will help you understand them better so you know how you can help.
  • Open up to the possibility of being vulnerable.
  • Be part of organizations that push for social change.
  • Make sure your body language is open so the other person feels heard.
  • Ask open ended questions. These generally begin with How, What, Where or Who.

At times we have not had the appropriate exposure to empathy in our childhood and so we are unable to develop this significant microskill that is an intergral life skill.The lack of empathy can reduce the quality of intimacy we are capable of creating in our relationships. We often see the lack of empathy permeating in couple relationships that diminishes the quality of their relationship. Feeling disconnected or alienated can also arise from not being able to understand others and for them to not understand your world.

If you’re looking to improve your empathetic skills, it is a great idea to seek professional assistance. Learning to be empathetic can be helpful in nurturing your relationships in your professional and personal life.

Certain kinds of therapy can prove to be highly effective in helping you understand people better.

At Incontact, we have a team of professionals that help you get the right guidance for all your mental health and wellbeing requirements. Connect with us on incontact.com.sg to get started.

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