Apparently empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is the new interactive quality we should all be showing. While it’s not clear exactly how humans experience empathy, there is a growing body of research on the topic.
While sympathy and compassion are related to empathy, there are important differences. Sympathy and compassion are often thought to involve more of a passive connection, while empathy generally involves a much more active attempt to understand and connect with another person. If it could be measured, it would be part of our emotional intelligence, often called EQ. This is distinct from our intellectual intelligence, or IQ.
My last two blogs have been based around the intelligent, accurate handling of information, ie Covid risks and vaccination. But I wanted to also explore the immense value of being aware of others’ feelings, even if we disagree.
Brexit was a prime example. Certainly in late 2016 it was ‘show your hand and risk loosing a friend’. Empathy was in short supply! Few people felt they wanted to ask their friend for their thoughts and explore the reasons for them, showing understanding for those reasons.
How does IQ relate to EQ? Clearly some high IQ people behave as if they can’t do EQ. And others find EQ comes naturally. My dog is lowish in IQ but tremendously high in EQ! But the present debate is more about asking the question ‘Can you learn empathy?’ And there are other questions such as ‘What are its effects in relationships, families, neighbourhoods and workplaces?’
Can you learn it? The simple (and surprising) answer is yes. And what are its effects? Basically better relationships, better family life, enhanced enjoyment of life, and a greater appreciation of the workplace.
So while some people are emotionally and naturally empathic, there is also something known as cognitive empathy, which involves having more complete and accurate knowledge about the contents of another person’s mind, including how the person feels. Cognitive empathy is more like a skill: humans learn to recognise and understand others’ emotions as a way to process their behaviour. Cognitive empathy can be acquired.
At various stages of my medical career I was the lead consultant. At first I did not feel the need to show much empathy. But as life’s tragedies happened, such as a male nurse dying of HIV, or relationship breakdowns among staff, I realised the essential nature of empathy. Workplace satisfaction is heavily dependant on it. In fact some psychologists measure empathy by the effects it has in a community or workplace. Are people feeling understood? Are they feeling appreciated? It is a strange observation that you can be quite a strict boss, but if empathetic, a loved boss.
So what are some of the steps to learn empathy? There is no doubt that emotional connection begins to happen when we ask questions. Especially ones that aren’t loaded with our opinions. In fact, as we ask questions about how the other responded, felt or reacted, we often discover things in common. We can put ourselves in the others’ shoes.
Another key step is simply to listen, and limit our comments to imagining a way forward. And here we have a key skill which must be learned, which is to withhold our reaction once someone has disclosed their delicate emotions. Those emotions must be held in tissue paper and respected.
You don’t need to say what you think. Don’t forget, people will get who you are by what they see and feel from you. It was Maya Angelou (1928-2014) who famously said ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’.
As this difficult year ends and 2021 begins, let’s strive to make those around us feel good.
Happy new year!