What is empathy? This concept is trotted out to mean many things in the workplace and in your personal life. Managers empathize with their workers. You are empathic to your friends. Empathize with the poor and needy. Empathy is a process which creates emotional and intellectual understanding of another person. Empathy is not sympathy or compassion. Intellectualized empathy becomes empty sympathy or compassion.
When we see someone in the throes of emotion, our body see the kinesthetic (muscle movements) in the other person, and remembers what those feelings are in our own body through our muscle movements. If you see a smile, you will tend to smile in response. If you see a smirk, you can feel the smirk in your muscles. You understand the emotion expressed because you feel it and have a context in which the smirk exists. You empathize with the smirker. Empathy must be in context with the moment. You can see and feel a smirk but until you can put the smirk into some context, you cannot understand the reason for the smirk. Empathy does not imply agreement, compassion for or sympathy with other person. Empathy means you feel kinesthetically the emotion you see in the other person and find some intellectual understanding of it.
The Greek concept of catharsis says that when we feel emotions of others, we cleanse our spirit. Empathy can do the same thing. If you feel the same way as another person, you can release the emotion found in yourself and gain understanding about you and others. True empathy is the gateway to emotional intelligence and positive human interaction. As a culture, we see and think instead of see and feel. Seeing and thinking can create sympathy and compassion but generally it is about expressing what is important about me. Seeing and feeling creates understanding sometimes other emotions. Seeing and thinking does not require any kind of connection to the other person. Seeing and feeling connects you.
Being connected to the people around you means you are less self-absorbed. You understand others in a personal way. You give up the feeling that everything is about you. You respond to what is important to the people around you. How often do you meet a salesperson who tries to sell you what they need to sell not what you want? Or do you have a friend who will talk about themselves but are not all that interested in what you have to say? You have no connection with these people and they have no real connection with you.
How do you improve your empathy? You have the inherent ability to be empathetic but you have tuned it out to focus on what you want. Start listening to what the person you are with is saying to you and not processing a response about what you think while they are still talking. See their body position and facial expressions as they are speaking. Let your body react to that behavior. Use your emotional memory and feeling to understand what the person is truly expressing. Remember, the words are only 10 percent of the real communication. Initially, the pause before you respond will seem strange to you but will make your response more connected.
After some practice, you will be listening and feeling at the same time. Feeling similar things does not mean you will always agree with what the other person is feeling about the situation. If you understand why someone is emotional about a given circumstance, you will have a better chance to respond in a positive and constructive way. Sometimes, quiet is the best response.
There is no empathy on Facebook or the internet. Empathy requires human interaction and a desire to connect with someone on an emotional level. The personal rewards will be greater than you can believe.