Many people use the term empathy. It’s also common knowledge that empathy is a good thing to have. However, it’s not always a priority for most. Roughly 98% of people are capable of empathizing with others, so the value of empathy may not seem all that valuable. However, the few exceptions consist of psychopaths, narcissists, and sociopaths. These three types of people are simply unable to understand or relate to the feelings and emotions that those around them experience.
Other groups that might struggle to understand the emotions of others are those on the Autism Spectrum. However, these people are likely capable of relating to the emotions of others but not in a traditional fashion. While the majority of people are capable of empathy, it is often a rare practice in our world today. With that being said, what exactly is empathy, and what is the value of empathy?
In this post, we will discuss the following:
- Can we develop empathy or are we born with a certain amount?
- Are some of us simply better at empathizing?
- Is it really as valuable as some claim it is to practice empathy?
Ready? Let’s go!
What is Empathy?
In the most basic sense, empathy is the ability to understand what is happening from another person’s perspective. Furthermore, it’s the ability to share the feelings and emotions of a peer and understand why they’re experiencing those feelings.
Numerous well-known individuals have shared their thoughts regarding the value of empathy.
Maya Angelou once stated, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”
Albert Einstein noted that “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”
Former President Barack Obama said, “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”
At the memorial for the five police officers who lost their lives in Dallas in 2016, former President George W. Bush stated, “At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions.”
Different Types of Empathy
In an effort to define empathy and the overall value of empathy, people have developed three categories of empathy. According to Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, two well-known psychologists, there are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.
- Cognitive empathy: This form of empathy involves the ability to understand how a peer feels and to figure out what they might be thinking.
- Emotional empathy: This type of empathy revolves around the ability to share another person’s emotions. This would mean when you see someone else who is sad, it makes you sad too.
- Compassionate empathy: This version of empathy is when you take feelings and convert them into actions. It extends beyond understanding and relating to other people’s situations and pushes one to do something.
The Value of Empathy
Empathy is valuable in nearly every aspect of our daily lives. It allows us to have compassion for our peers and helps us relate to friends, loved ones, co-workers, and even strangers. More importantly, it makes a large positive difference in the world.
The Value of Empathy in Our Personal Lives
Healthy relationships require nurture, care, and overall understanding. A platonic friendship or a romantic connection that lacks empathy and understanding will almost certainly implode. When people only value their own interests, the other people in the relationship will undoubtedly suffer.
If one spouse in a marriage fails to see things from the other’s perspective, they will like experience marital issues. No two people will ever think exactly alike, and no two people are going to gather the same experiences. Both parties in a relationship bring their own ideas, life experiences, and hardships. Without taking the time to try to relate to each other’s feelings and perspectives, the individuals in the relationship will likely feel unloved and uncared for.
The Value of Empathy in Our Professional Lives
For most of us, a workplace is a nucleus for teamwork. For things that demand a group effort, it is critical that we take the time to relate to our peers. Even if we’re not working on the same project, it’s necessary for us to get along with our peers. Showing empathy is a vital element in a smooth and healthy relationship. Without it, it’s far easier to fall into arguments and disagreements.
It is also important for managers to practice empathy. Managers who lack empathy will likely subject those under their supervision to unfair practices. Managers who lack empathy are prone to pushing employees to work beyond what is healthy and reasonable. These sorts of managers may also be harsh when an employee makes a mistake.
Furthermore, higher amounts of empathy in the workplace often translate into increased performance, increased sales, and better leadership.
The Global Value of Empathy
Empathy on a global level is of great value. This is especially true when it results in compassion. This form of empathy encourages people to dive in and help when disaster strikes. People are willing to help those whom they’ve never met because they know that they too would need the support if things were reversed.
A world without compassionate empathy would be a far darker and less functional place to live.
Can the Value of Empathy Be Taught?
There is some evidence that the ability of an individual to empathize is tied to genetic predisposition. However, there is also ample evidence that empathy is a skill that can increase or decrease over time.
One of the most effective ways to train an individual to become more empathetic is to teach the trait from an early age. Empathy is part of a field of study known as “emotional intelligence.” Teaching children to consider how others feel is a great way to teach the value of empathy.
If one child hurts another child or teases them on the playground, it’s helpful to ask the aggressor how they think they made the other child feel. You can also ask them how they would feel if someone had treated them the same way. Would they appreciate being teased or hurt? Would they be sad or angry if a peer treated them poorly?
You can also apply this approach to positive things. For instance, sharing is an important part of a child’s education. We often teach children to share because they like it when others share with them. Furthermore, it’s easy to teach children to treat others with kindness because they too enjoy it when others treat them kindly.
How to Better Understand the Value of Empathy
It is without question easier to teach a person to show empathy from childhood. However, it is also possible for adults to improve their understanding and practice of empathy. Here are a few ways that adults can improve their empathy.
This may seem far-fetched, but reading fiction can actually improve your empathy. Recent studies show that when people read fiction, their brains genuinely feel as if they’re entering a new world. For instance, researchers at the University of Buffalo studied participants who had read Twilight and Harry Potter. Upon careful analysis of their findings, they discovered that people self-identified as vampires and wizards respectively.
This is important because it shows that individuals are able to identify with people and groups that are outside of themselves. Let’s put this into a non-fantasy application. It shows that people can relate to people who live lives that are totally different than their own. For instance, an individual from the United States could read a book about a person from China and eventually learn to identify with someone on the other side of the world.
In an article about the research conducted at the University of Buffalo, Brandon Specktor writes, “In fiction…we are able to understand characters’ actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have.” In short, where we would typically not have access to another person’s thoughts, literature provides us with a window into the inner thoughts of other people.
The simple practice of listening to others is a phenomenal way to develop empathy. When we slow down and take the time to listen to the things that other people are telling us, we can then begin to grasp how they think and how they feel.
Listening occurs best when we put aside our personal thoughts and opinions and carefully think about what our peers are saying. We can also listen better when we set aside distractions such as our phones and tablets. When we dedicate our full attention to others we make them feel like we care for them. It also gives us an opportunity to genuinely understand their point of view.
Strive to Understand Those with Differing Opinions and Beliefs
For most of us, it’s far easier to relate to people who are in our “in-group.” In other words, it’s without question easier to trust or understand those who we think are like us. This style of thinking can be inhibiting in a diverse workplace. It can also suppress compassionate empathy for those who venture outside their communities.
In order to challenge this type of thinking, it’s important to take the time to understand people who are different. To expand empathy, a person might have to challenge their preconceived notions and biases and consider another person’s point of view.
You can also achieve this by widening your circle and becoming friends with people you may not ordinarily connect with. You may be surprised to find that you have more in common than you first thought. Doing so will likely broaden your ability for empathy.