Empathy: Just one piece of the puzzle

The ability to step outside of ourselves and into the perspective of another person is a simple skill with a transformative power – whether we are talking about a married couple resolving a misunderstanding or an expatriate discerning a bewildering local culture.

And yet recently, empathy has come under attack. For example, Yale professor Paul Bloom argues that “empathy has all sorts of bad effects.” Defining it as “feeling the suffering of another person,” he describes it as arrogant, unrealistic, and unhelpful. More striking, he argues that it actually promotes immorality and inequality because it tells us to listen to our heart strings instead of rational thinking.

There may be a kernel of truth in this argument. For one, there are limits to how fully we can know what it is like to be another person, and if our only goal is to feel their pain, empathy does not seem particularly useful. One could argue that, rather than trying to feel like a starving child, it would be better to feed him. Second, if we make decisions solely on feelings, we may fuel problematic biases. For example, if we are motivated to prove our status as “good people” we may fall into traps like the savior complex that disempower those we mean to help.

A different definition

That said, we diverge with Bloom on three key points. First, we define empathy more broadly, along the lines of Merriam Webster: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. This empathy is not limited to mirroring or mimicking feelings, but includes talking, sharing, listening, and learning. It can be a two-way street, and goes beyond suffering.

Second, we see empathy as a part of the process, a step that provides us with insights that we can use in deciding how to respond to challenges, particularly when we are bogged down. Empathy is an opportunity to interrupt our reflexive response patterns, hold the other person’s humanity as equally valid to ours, ask ourselves what else we might not know, and consider a situation from a different angle. However, it is not the goal itself.

Third, although empathy involves stepping outside of ourselves, it does not stop us from returning home afterward. It does not require us to like each other or come to the same conclusion. It also does not oblige us to make everyone happy or forget our values in the name of getting along. Empathy does not prevent us from engaging in rational thinking or moral reasoning. Put another way, empathy can function as a lighthouse shining on rocky coast, but it can’t tell us where we are trying to go (or why), nor teach us how to sail.

Wading through empathy

The main challenge with empathy is that it can make things messier. When we come face to face with how another person sees, thinks, and feels, it can add variables to an already unwieldy equation. It can also raise uncomfortable questions not only about the situation and the other party, but about our own self-concept. Particularly if we are perfectionists, pleasers, or conflict-avoiders, we may feel stressed to realize that even if everyone has a valid point and good intentions, it still may not be possible to reach a perfect compromise.

And yet, this is less a problem of empathy per se, and more about knowing who we are, what our goals are, and where our boundaries lie. The context and our competence in wading through all of this matter a great deal, too. Consider a doctor working with an immigrant patient, a business person negotiating  with a global counterpart, a student making friends while studying abroad, or even a parent negotiating smart phone screen time with a teenager. In each case, empathy can contribute to the best possible outcome – but the definition of what that is will vary with the situation’s parameters and the parties’ prerogatives, flexibility, and ability.

Empathy in the real world

We wade through this on a daily basis because we frequently encounter different opinions and ways of doing things, many of which are culturally rooted. Empathy is beneficial because it helps us see the motivations behind behaviors and opens up possibilities in the gray area between “my way and the highway.” It also encourages us to see others as multidimensional individuals, even in the midst of misunderstandings or disagreements.

Yet, even when we appreciate a situation from another’s perspective, we may still be unwilling or unable to do what they want. We have to remind ourselves that our goal is not to perform the other culture perfectly or to make the other person happy, but to nimbly and steadily build a productive relationship with them as best we can in the given context.

It isn’t easy, and sometimes we do feel ensnared by empathy. Yet this isn’t because empathy is bad or to blame, but because life brings complications that have to be sorted out. Discarding empathy might make things seem easier on the surface, but just as turning a light off in a room doesn’t make the furniture disappear, cutting ourselves off from insights won’t make underlying challenges go away. And ultimately, with or without the support of empathy, the only real way to make progress is to do the hard work.

Conclusion

Empathy isn’t one-size-fits-all, nor a panacea. Even so, it is a valuable part of our practice in navigating relationships with our fellow human beings, particularly when crossing cultures. How are you engaging with empathy? Or struggling with it? Let’s have a chat!

InsightsMelissa Hahnculture