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Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide
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Most people believe that empathy is compassion. As an empathy lesson, I ask the people in my empathy training classes to ask five people from among their acquaintances: “How do you define empathy?” and to do this without defining empathy for them in advance. The respondents routinely report back with a story about compassion, altruism, charity, niceness, or prosocial behavior. “Prosocial behavior” is an action, behavior, or intervention that helps one’s neighbors. And, heaven knows, the world needs more compassion (and prosocial behavior). However, compassion is distinct from empathy. Empathy Lessons, the book, says how.
Most people regard empathy as something like a switch that one can turn on or off. One has it or one hasn’t. Books that promise to train you in empathy say that the book is going to tell you how to get it. Note this implies you haven’t got it. How do you feel about that? This is not necessarily a good way to begin with one’s prospective audience or client. This book proposes an alternative approach. My modest proposal is: Not more, but expanded empathy.
Let us take a step back. You know how we can feed everyone on the planet, so that there should be no need for people to get sick and die of starvation? Thanks to the “Green Revolution,” high tech seeds, and the economies of scale of agri-business, enough food exists to feed everyone? Yet people are starving. People are starving in the Middle East, Africa, and even in parts of the inner city in the USA. People are starving because of politics (in the pejorative sense), breakdowns in social justice, aggression, prejudice, fragmentation of communities, and human badness. There is enough food for everyone, but it is badly distributed.
Likewise, with empathy. Enough empathy is available to go around; but it is badly distributed. People are living and working in empathy deserts.
Organizational politics, stress and burnout, attempts to control and dominate, egocentrism and narcissism, out-and-out aggression and greed, all result in empathy getting hoarded locally, creating “empathy deserts” even amid an adequate supply.
Therefore, my approach does not call for “more” empathy, but rather for “expanded” empathy. The difference is subtle. Saying “We need more empathy here!” implies the person is unempathic—and that is an insult, a dignity violation. In extreme cases, a person may in fact lack empathy in a formal, technical sense—the serial killer, the psychopath, and persons suffering from some particular mental illnesses (or even a case of flu). However, such persons are an exception or an exceptional situation that will pass.
Experience indicates that the call for “more empathy” results in a further breakdown of empathy. Expanded empathy makes a difference in getting unstuck from difficult, sticky situations, reestablishing relatedness, de-escalating conflict, interrupting anger or soothing rage, shifting out of upset, and overcoming the challenges of relating in a world that can be decidedly unempathic.
This may seem like a rhetorical flourish, and perhaps at some level it is that too; but it is really an accurate description of the subtlety of the human situation, in which people assume their own point of view is right—and, therefore, is the empathic one. With that in mind, we acknowledge this is going to take some work.
In most cases, persons have a significant empathic ability with which the individual is out of touch. The person’s empathy is implicit and is waiting to be expanded. Therefore, my appeal call goes out for expanded empathy—to leverage the kernel of empathy that already exists in the person and develop it, if not into a mountain, at least into large, heaping mound of empathy.
One reason that empathy training programs have not worked or have had mixed results is that they train the participants in compassion, being nice, conflict resolution, baby and child care, and a number of worthy and admirable tasks. This is all excellent, and the use of empathic methods is making the world a better place in all these situations. So keep it up. There is nothing wrong with being nice; and so on: do not be “unnice”! But paradoxically something is missing—empathy.
The empathy lesson (“not more, expanded empathy”) indicates that if one subtracts empathy from compassion, then one gets sympathy, reaction, burnout, and compassion fatigue, which end up giving empathy a bad name. Now I do not wish to give anyone a bad name, especially anyone who is committed to empathy, compassion, or making a difference in overcoming human pain and suffering. On the contrary, I acknowledge and honor one and all. The battle is joined; we are all on the same side; but we want to deploy our limited resources wisely.
It is no accident that the word “compassion” occurs in “compassion fatigue.” Could it be that people who are experiencing compassion fatigue, but claim to be in a break down or failure of empathy, are actually in a break down of compassion? If one is trying to be empathic, but one is experiencing compassion fatigue, maybe one is doing it wrong. Maybe one is practicing empathy “wrongly,” clumsily, with inadequate skill, precision, completeness, or finesse; and one needs a tune up for one’s empathy. Get one of the books or get in touch to get a “tune up” for one’s empathy. [LAgosta@UChicago.edu]
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
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