Tuesday, March 25, 2014

5 minute elevator speech - What is empathy?

I was catching up with an old friend the other day. He asked me "What is empathy, anyway?" so I decided to revisit my five minute elevator speech on the topic.


Empathy has many definitions, but the most generally accepted one seems to be "empathy is putting yourself in someone else's position and imagining what it feels like to be that person." However, if I try to feel what someone else is feeling; I may be doing it well (YAY) or I may be doing it poorly (BOO).

I've made the argument before that empathy is a skill, which for some people comes naturally and for others (like me) it takes time to build.  I've been working on the skill through writing, through listening and talking to people I meet and generally opening myself up to people in my life; everyone from strangers to friends and family.

If you want to look back and see me working on this skill, you can check out these older posts and stories or just use the 'search this blog' feature:

Connecting with other parents, a kid's birthday party
Moments in friendship
With strangers at the doctor's office

My friend and I also touched on a separate (but still interesting) topic, "What's the difference between empathy and compassion?" I told my friend that I believe the term "compassion" has a value, or moral component. If I have compassion for a person it's because they are in pain. I see that they are uncomfortable, and I would like it if they were not. I feel what they feel (empathy), and I want their feelings to improve (compassion).

I would say empathy is the gut feeling that you get when you see

a falling person
a crying person
a hungry person
a happy person

I can (and I believe we all can) feel empathy for happy people. That's the joyful part of empathy, when I can feel someone else's happiness.

What's going on in your life, right now, that makes you happy? Tell me about it.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Changing the conversation - a brief moment of empathy

I had a brief moment of empathy the other day; that reminded me what practicing empathy really means. It means changing our conversations so that the other person has a chance to express their feelings, and then listening to what they say, once they express them.

I was talking the other day about having second thoughts before committing a hurtful act. Well I think this is also true for moments where you *could* say the wrong thing in a conversation, and you don't. When I pull myself back - and listen instead of talking.


A friend of mine's husband recently had knee surgery. I was catching up on other things, when talk turned to his recent surgery.

"Hey, your husband just had surgery, right? How are you both holding up?"

"Pretty well, actually. It was on his right knee, so I'm driving him around everywhere."

[Here I paused. I thought several times about some things to say, and each time I pulled it back. Things like "Wow, that really sucks." - I didn't say that because then I'd be telling her how she felt about driving him around. "That must be really hard for you," again, not a good idea, since I'm telling her how to feel. I decided to go with 'funny' and said,

"Playing chauffeur, huh?"


[Again, a pause. I didn't get any sense of how she felt about this, one way or the other. I've had several people I know go through knee surgery, so I'm aware that many people had different experiences post-surgery. So I decided to go with a passive question.]

"I can't imagine what it's like, to have to take care of someone like that all the time."

She replied with, "Well, you would know, right? Because I've heard it's kind of...like parenting."

I said, "Except, without the diaper changes I hope."

Result? A shared laugh. Much better than a conversation spent complaining about how horrible life's little challenges can be.

Have you tried to 'change your conversation' lately?


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

If I hurt you and I don't think about it... is that a lack of empathy?

Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and both of my arms were asleep. As the feeling slowly came back, I thought about how vulnerable I felt (as a person without the use of her arms). It led me to thoughts about those people who cause hurt, doing so when others are at their most vulnerable.

I wonder if I could have empathy for such a person.

How does a person hurt someone else, and then justify their actions to themselves or to others? Are they simply unable to feel empathy? Some have said* that when an attacker hurts other people, they are choosing to 'turn off' their empathy, as I would take off a raincoat, and go without.

I read an article recently, which was a study of aggressive activity done by men in bars. The article implied, to me, that the person doing the act of aggression is doing so because they think they can 'get away with it'. They believe that nobody will stop them.


I admit I've done some minor bad things.... I've crossed the street not obeying the traffic signals. What New Yorker hasn't? I've tossed a piece of garbage off a ledge (a boat, a cliff, a balcony of a 10th floor apartment). I've taken a piece of tasty looking food from the office 'fridge, without asking permission from the owner.

In all of those small cases, I know I'm doing something that's supposed to be wrong. However, I also know that at the time I'm doing those things, there doesn't seem to be any immediate way for me to be caught at it. As a result, I'm tempted. I think about it, I consider it. I could just do it, right? Nobody would see. It's just a piece of cake. Snatch!

I believe that just because I don't have second thoughts in all situations doesn't mean I lack empathy. It just means that I'm not good at bringing up 'second thoughts' in every situation.


I can't imagine what goes through someone's mind when they are hurting another person. Intentionally. Willfully. However I do think that I can empathize** with a person who is doing something wrong, just because they think they can get away with it. Perhaps they just don't get to those all-important second thoughts.


*My apologies if I'm oversimplifying Simon Baron-Cohen's writings with this reference. His book, and his writings are in reference not just to those who commit so called 'evil acts' but also to those who simply step outside of the acceptable social world we live in. He's touched on this topic in great detail - I suggest checking out his book if you are so inclined. 

**Note that I'm saying 'empathize' here and not 'forgive'.