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.


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