Acquiring Empathy: There are No Shortcuts

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Introduction to a Phenomenon Too Few Appreciate Full Measure


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On surface, even the psychologists and sociologists appear to get full meaning of one particular phenomenon only peripherally: empathy. Collectively, they come at it off-center. I say ‘phenomenon,’ not because its origins or explanations for its existence are somehow controversial. But because in its own right it’s a truly remarkable form of intelligence that isn’t given its due. As popularly defined (in the present tense), empathy is a [learned] ability to understand and feel what another person’s experiencing from their frame of reference; from their perspective. Shallow as that may come across, it bears a mountain of profundity packed into a dollop of simplistic words. Borders on sounding trite, as though commenting on today’s weather. Almost ironic. However, less baffling is how so few of us only experience and express baseline empathy with any degree of fluency. That’s because we have to first experience it internally before we can express it externally.

Make that Three Intelligences Instead of Two

Many well-informed readers were just getting used to the notion of possessing two intelligences: the conventional one—ability to think and reason, or IQ—and the new kid on the block, emotional intelligence, or EQ. Baseline and existential empathy are my terms for a third form of intelligence, also having innate origins, but can only develop and flourish through accrual of instructive life experiences and studied examination. That said, empathy therefore is not one of those nice-to-have human attributes. Quite the opposite, we should care deeply about collectively possessing it, and even more so, of having mastered it.

From a natural selection perspective, nature did its part, by selecting for empathy to be passed down to us, so-called modern humans. Along with other mechanisms favoring our ancestors’ survival, many possessed a small cluster of mirror neurons in their brain. They’re a special class of nerve cells that enabled our ancestors to sense when harm and hardship were experienced by their kin; possibly inspiring cooperation and further bonding. This early form of empathy was likely rudimentary, mainly cognitively sensed, absent of an emotional undercurrent (save, perhaps, fear when fear was situationally pertinent). The cognitive side is referred to as explicit or cognitive empathy. Where one’s understanding is clear, direct, and relatively accurate with regard to matching another person’s stated perspective on a personal experience being shared. But there’s an even lesser degree of empathy to first get through developmentally.

The average child is likely to first develop transient empathy: under the right emotional condition, when in the company of a friend or relative (i.e., relater) of close bonds, who then relates some personal experience: the average child is likely to form a mental carbon copy of the relater’s shared perspective—that is, explicit empathy. She or he may also feel a rough equivalent of one or more emotions conveyed, or maybe even being exhibited just then by the relater. But also unlikely to be at a comparable strength of being all-consumed by that emotion, as may be the relater’s case. But at least enough to have stirred the child’s genuine concern. As its name suggests, think of transient empathy as still lacking adequate ‘experiential diversity and instruction’ to apply it accurately and reliably at a baseline level.

Importance & Value of Empathy

Without empathic intelligence, or EMPQ (distinguishing it from emotional intelligence/EQ), our capacity to relate to each other in this increasingly complex and volatile world renders us intellectually and emotionally illegible. As far as straightforward, more or less antiseptic transactions go, we’d be okay; but otherwise, we’re at the cusp of being interpersonally illiterate. We won’t get accurate readings on others, nor they from us. We’ll forever be forming wrong assumptions, interpretations, and conclusions. Instead of helping, for many instances we’ll be hindering. We’ll be self-banished to some away corner of interpersonal relationships, relying continually on shallower forms of relating two-dimensionally to one another. In this manner, submitting ourselves to ineffectualness in the most somber of situations. Even more abysmal, when we’re most needed by a dear friend or relative who’s relating to us an upsetting experience, we’d come up embarrassingly short—worst-possible-moment impotent—as their entrusted confidant for mending and restoring their former sense of life balance.

In short, we wouldn’t have the kind of (existential) empathy that’s capable of fueling the emotions and emotional stamina to go the actionable distance of ‘doing right’ as each situation suggests. More on this, momentarily. An empathy glossary supplies a few relevant terms, eliminating any confusion.

Empathy Glossary

The Six Levels of Rational-Emotional Response Given to Others

As complex as life is, and as humans are, it’s helpful to view this third form of intelligence, EMPQ, through a Rational-Emotional Hierarchy of Responses that are possible for any given personal situation being described by another individual. Strictly factual and instrumental types of responses aside, there are six levels, listed next, in descending order of greater intellectual and emotional dexterity being harnessed:

  1. Distressed/Distraught – A blunt emotional reaction to a relater’s account of their personal experience. The ‘relater’ in this instance isn’t relating per se; they’re basically reacting with their own set of triggered emotions, one of those likely being anxiety.
  2. Sympathize – feel and express any combination of pity, sorrow, and compassion in response to another person’s personal account of having fallen upon adversity. The strength of their feelings can be intrinsically moving, but it has no relation to an accurate grasp of a relater’s perspective; even less likely, that their feelings will mimic those of the relater.
  3. Explicit/Cognitive Empathy – comprehending enough of a relater’s perspective to produce one’s own clear, direct, and accurate account of what they’d experienced. Which means they ‘get it,’ but can’t relate to it on a deep personal level. Its understanding remains more or less academic, two dimensional, distant and detached. Mainly because the emotional component is thoroughly missing. They may be feeling something, but their ability to grasp the relater’s perspective hasn’t raised the same attendant emotions as the relater’s. Persons whose empathic intelligence never progresses to include the emotional component are highly unlikely to give compassion and aid to a relater, no matter how tight is their bond.
  4. Transient Empathy – An incipient version of empathy, with adequate explicit empathy on the cognitive side, and less-developed emotional mirroring of what a relater feels on the affect side. In plainer terms, this is beginner’s empathy; raw, immature, inexperienced.
  5. Baseline Empathy – Ability to understand a relater’s perspective and feel the same or a similar feeling state to a modest degree. The empathizer has been ‘moved’ by what they know-and-feel; but if a relater’s hoping for some form of behavioral response from the empathizer to somehow improve their situation, movement is likely to be between minimal and deficient. Naturally, the empathizer cares about the relater’s circumstance; it’s the attendant feelings that lack sufficient strength and stamina to be actionable and go to whatever behavioral distance appears expedient. Yet for many interpersonal situations, just lending a compassionate and supportive ear is more than enough show of caring.
  6. Existential Empathy – This is a well-rounded, seasoned, versed to a fault, form of empathy. It is a practiced and instructed level of empathy said to be accomplished because of its predictable accuracy both in grasping a relater’s perspective and in mirroring the feelings or feeling state of a relater. And for predictably experiencing empathic charge and insightfulness as well. Empathizers who’ve empirically gotten to this level of empathy usually possess high emotional intelligence as well: they’re able to regulate their own emotions and not let emotional mirroring become self-injurious and destabilizing. Such empathizers are intuitively versed to apparently know the right action to take on behalf of a relater when some form of follow-on action appears to be indicated. Their emotional stamina enables them to see their way through to bring about resolution to whatever ensuing action had been undertaken.

As just alluded to, existential empathizers possess empathic insightfulness: the capacity to fairly accurately extrapolate from a relater’s personal account of their experience other additional meanings and implications that were inadvertently omitted in the telling. A seasoned empathizer would be able to discern which, if any, extrapolated meanings and implications would benefit the relater if the empathizer were to share them; or perhaps they’d be shared to further embolden or improve a relater’s current condition.

Existential empathizers, as some readers may have already surmised, have a rich history of experiencing personal hardship, challenge, and a myriad of positive and negative emotions accompanying a diverse range of difficult-to-traumatic life situations. They’ve coped, survived, failed, and succeeded along the way. For their effort they’ve also accrued empathic drive: those same copious experiences with observing and expressing empathy now enable them to bring a richer, more robust, repertoire of prompt and total comprehension of a felt-moment than can that of a baseline empathizer, for example. Existential empathizers’ internal inspirational drive, or élan, is already there, latent for the moment, until they’re again moved to feel and express empathy.

Capacity to feel and express empathy can be lopsided. Some baseline and existential empathizers may be far more fluent in relating to other persons’ adverse experiences than to their positive ones. But especially noteworthy is the double-bind situation: where the culprit of a bad situation has imposed adversity on another person, the relater, who now relates to the culprit exactly what s/he has instigated. Is the culprit able to empathize at all from baseline? Or only explicitly at best, with their emotional side defensively shutdown to preserve a wounded ego, fantasized self-image, and reeling self-respect?

Based solely on personal experience—which is both anecdotal and empirical—the majority of persons in such double-bind roles are going to be baldly inept at empathizing. In today’s reality, they’ve a hard enough time getting to the mile markers of admission-of-wrongdoing and sincere apology. The marker for tapping into empathy’s too much farther along, too remote. Even research bears this much out: in general, American ability to empathize is declining.

Empathy Epicenter for Interpersonal Literacy

I encourage readers to kindle their innate sparks of empathic expression. To put themselves in front of, and embrace, personally harsh and trying circumstances, because—seemingly paradoxically—the more they do so, the better person they become. We’re built to overcome adversity, the sine qua non of survival. Not turn away from it. It’s what makes us ubiquitously relatable to others’ misfortunes.

One cannot shop for the kind of repertoire we’re talking about. It has to be earned, learned, well-versed, and reality-tested before it can ever be owned. It has to be diverse in order to represent life as we know it. It has to be prudent and practical to merit actionable undertaking on a relater’s behalf.

There are no downloadable apps, either, to turn to. It all comes from inside. Its genesis lies within EACH READER of this paper. Hopefully, their parents have made a significant contribution during those formative years. If not, there may be some ‘catching up’ to do before they achieve baseline or, more trying yet, existential mastery status.

But the reward is that their baseline- or existential-empathy quotient means they’re at least less likely to be: ending cherished relationships for wrong reasons; reading people incorrectly, drawing false inferences, and thusly taking inappropriate action; making matters worse when interceding on behalf of a maltreated friend or relative; proving to be the wrong choice when a disgruntled coworker turns to them for moral support; the dumbfounded, fumbling bystander when an absolute stranger gets injured or psychologically paralyzed by an accident or equally traumatic incident where they’re first on scene. In a word, people will need them. Especially in these uncertain, self-absorbed times, they need them to be that kind of person with a high level of empathic fluency.

So, please: be that kind of person.


Guest Author Bio
Benjamin Ruark

Benjamin RuarkBenjamin Ruark’s first career was in behavioral psychology before shifting to business and industry in the practice of performance engineering under the title of Learning & Development consultant, also Continuous Quality Improvement consultant. Now retired, he writes essays on a number of eclectic subjects of personal interest.



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