Monday, December 15, 2014

It turns out empathy is not a skill everyone possesses

Yesterday Brad Feld communicated on his blog that he and his wife Amy are huge believers in empathy, in response to also having watched the video I talked about in my last post.
But then, there was a comment from a software engineer / musician with a PhD degree —a clearly intelligent and thoughtful individual — which I though was intriguing. It said:
“I use the term ‘empathy’ when I have actual personal experience with whatever the other individual is going through. I don’t think there’s really any other justification to be able to claim that you are feeling or experiencing what they are. I use the term ‘sympathy’ otherwise.
I really don’t like this presentation of her views of these words. She’s adding semantic to the words which is overloading the definitions. And the presentation makes it sound like sympathy is bad and empathy is good. These are fairly precise terms and some of the implications she mentions are beyond their definitions. For example, she focuses on the ‘connection’ concept which really has nothing to do with sympathy vs empathy. I can sympathize with someone and still connect with them. Likewise, I can empathize with someone and not connect with them at all.”
To which I replied:
I actually get how you look at this, but I’d assert you’re possibly making assumptions about these definitions.
If, God forbid, you ended up with a terminal disease, for example, which statement would you rather hear, ‘Oh my God you poor thing’, or ‘Wow, f**k man, I really get it’?
That’s the difference.
You don’t need to be terminally ill or have come in close contact with a person who was in order to have empathy with someone who is in that situation, contrary to your logic.”
He then counter-replied with:
“Actually, you do IMHO. How can you have empathy for someone who is terminally ill unless you’re terminally ill yourself? I do not presume to know what or how someone is feeling unless I’ve been exposed to it myself. I consider that arrogant.
If I was terminally ill and someone claimed to have empathy for me, I’d be put off since they obviously don’t know what they are talking about. In your example, that would be engendered in me if they, like you say, said “I really get it.” I’d think, no, you don’t.”
At that point, I felt the urge to further engage, but I decided not to proceed as I felt it is not my place to over-engage on someone else’s blog. And so I decided to excogitate on it here — where only perhaps a few hundred people will read it :-)
BTW, my response to something like this would be, “Yes perhaps, I’ll never quite know what it’s like to be in your situation, I can only try to imagine, but it definitely seems like it is not what you had planned for yourself.” And then I’d allow them to share with me what’s it’s really like — if they were so inclined to share, and if it didn’t seem inappropriate, probably depending on how much prior connection I had with them.
At first I had assumed that the gentleman had misunderstood the definitions involved, but that doesn’t seem so much the case.
Referring to my all-time favorite dictionary, a reprint of 1828's ‘American Dictionary of the English Language” by Noah Webster — a most definitive work — the entry for “sympathize” says:
1.To have a common feeling, as of bodily pleasure or pain.
The mind will sympathize so much with the anguish and debility of the body , that it will be too distracted to fix itself in meditation. — Buckminster
2. To feel in consequence of what another feels; to be affected by feelings similar to those of another, in consequence of knowing the person to be thus affected.
We sympathize with our friends in distress; we feel some pain when we see them pained, or when we are informed of their distresses, even at a distance.
[It is generally and properly used of suffering and pain, and not of pleasure or joy. It may be sometimes used with greater latitude.]
Mr. Webster states that the word originates from a combination of two Greek words which meant “with passion”.
There is no entry in that dictionary for “empathize.”
So 186 years ago, there was only one word to express both concepts: “sympathy”.
And the divergence in meanings which has since ensued is not consistent across the several modern dictionaries I’ve checked.
So I did a little further research and came up with the following links to these relevant sites:
  1. Diffen
  2. Grammarist
  3. Vocabulary
  4. Dictionary
  5. Grammar-monster
In summary, “sympathy” offers several definitions, one of which for example, is “relation or harmony between bodies of such nature that vibrations in one cause sympathetic vibrations in the other or others”. (Webster New World).
Another one is “harmony of or agreement of feeling”. (Dictionary app)
But the one which universally applies to the “empathy vs sympathy” discussion has strong connotations to pity in some dictionaries, as in “pity or compassion felt for another’s trouble.
That is the very element in my mind which creates the need for an alternate word, i.e. “empathy”.
And that is also why sympathy is not a vibe I personally would want to be the recipient of, and why Dr BrenĂ© Brow’s YouTube video is so powerful that it has garnered 3,180,998 views at the time of writing.
Now, here are some interesting excerpts about “empathy” from the above links:
“[Empathy is] understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes.”
“When you understand and feel another’s feelings for your yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerned you personally, you have the ability to empathize.”
“Empathy was first used to describe how a viewer’s appreciation of art depends on her ability to project her personality onto the art. These days it applies to anything you can basically “project your personality” on. When you feel what someone else feels, that’s empathy.”
“If you’re feeling empathy, you’re in (em) the feeling. If it’s sympathy, you’re feeling sorry for someone.”
“The noun empathy denotes the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
In short — and that is the important point IMO — empathy is a skill. It is a character attribute. It’s obviously not that hard to have empathy for someone if you have been in the same exact situation as them.
Where it gets more difficult, or even impossible for some — is to be able to put oneself in the shoes of another, while never having been in that particular situation yourself.
I find it pessimistic and fatalistic to believe that those who can’t feel empathy are stuck in that condition forever.
And so I’m going to postulate that empathizing can be an acquired skill; it’s a more hopeful view to behold.
I consider personally having the ability to have empathy, and I find that one of  the things that helps me is to constantly be asking, “What is it like to…?”
This is so much the case that I’ve created the website, centering around inspiring stories from real people, the titles of which, must absolutely all begin with one of only three options:
“What it’s like to …”
“What it was like to…”
What it will be like to…”
It’s baked in the interface. (And sorry, no app or mobile-responsive design in sight for now. It’s currently all web.)
Not all stories center around the human plight, the sorrows, the suffering, etc.
There are stories about pleasure, travel, various cities, etc.
But all stories tell what something is like.
The concept (if it’d ever take off in earnest), provides a platform to build empathy.
For example, this story completely touched me and made me want to go hug my wife afterwards. It gave me empathy for someone who loses their other half. In fact, I often think about this story.
Another story is about this 16 years old girl who will die unless she gets some very needed medical treatment which her family can’t afford.
Or the story about the child with autism.
And I could go on and on.
So only yesterday have I realized that empathy is not a skill that everyone possesses. I’m late to the party, I suppose.
Of course, it explains a lot about the world we live in, in retrospect :-)
I remain hopeful that the concept will continue to move to the forefront of our society, and that more and more people will fully develop the skill.
Trying to get an “Empathy Day” instituted around the world would be a worthwhile goal for someone brave enough for the task.
In parting, another comment on Brad’s blog yesterday said:
We don’t understand enough about Empathy. When it’s warranted? How is it helpful? How much of it is useful? How to deal with too much empathy? How to develop empathy skills? How to turn it on? How to turn is off? How to use it correctly?
My reply to that one was:
It’s not something you turn on and off like a piece of appliance. It’s a mindset you develop. It’s a continuous awareness of the possible state of mind others can potentially be found in. It’s a sensibility you acquire. It’s an asset you nurture. It’s not something you over-think, it’s something you feel your way through.”


  1. Great great explanation / exploration of empathy. Super helpful to me in how I'm processing what it means and how it works.

  2. Holy Molly. First Disqus comment on my blog from Brad Feld himself!! I'm humbled ... and happy. Thank you.

  3. Holy Molly. First Disqus comment on my blog from Brad Feld himself!! I'm humbled ... and happy. Thank you.

  4. So, so true.

    It's really nice to hear from you Sergey. I was thinking about you lately.

  5. Hey Mario, this is a powerful post and many thanks for sharing.

    Your last point from above is consistent with the way I've experienced and think about empathy...I believe we do learn to have empathy, but it requires us to turn off two things: one is our external self that wants to be heard and to have validation, and the the other is our internal intellect that sometimes prevents us from connecting to others (which I think was the lens that the commenter on Brad's blog was coming from).

    Sometimes that last thing is about the brain demanding that we be constantly rational, sometimes it is the internal arrogance we face that tells us we already know all we can about what it means to be human, when in reality empathy is like love, the more of it you commit to trying the more your capacity for it increases (I wrote something about that here which you might enjoy, too:

  6. Joe, thanks and great point about committing to your values.

    As you say in your own blog post,
    which I've found very thoughtful (and to paraphrase), if you go around doing random acts of kindness and putting your money where your mouth is, you will greatly expand your capacity to empathize.

    That's a really powerful observation man, thanks!