In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from their perspective, and, second, sharing their emotions, including their distress.
According to writer and therapist, Dr. Brené Brown, empathy builds connection and communicates to another that “you are not alone.” Sometimes when someone shares something difficult or painful, it can be incredibly difficult. Feeling that one is alone makes it worse.
In Danish schools an hour a week is dedicated to the “Klassens tid”, an empathy lesson for students aged 6 to 16 years. It is a fundamental part of the Danish curriculum. The hour of empathy is as important as the time spent, for example, on English or mathematics. During the Klassens tid students discuss their problems, either related to school or not, and the whole class, together with the teacher, tries to find a solution based on real listening and understanding. If there are no problems to discuss, children are simply spent the time together relaxing and enjoying hygge, a word (and also a verb and an adjective), which cannot be translated literally, since it is a phenomenon closely related to Danish culture. Hygge could be defined as “intentionally created intimacy”.
How is empathy different from sympathy?
Sympathy is primarily about observation and an acceptance that someone else is going through challenging experiences. It can amount to “feeling sorry” for someone, which is an acknowledgment of a situation. It’s not a concept that requires someone to experience the emotion that another person is going through deeply. With this, there’s a natural detachment from the situation.
Four attributes of empathy:
1. Perspective taking. This means trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Oftentimes, to engage in perspective taking, we need to ask questions. “Can you tell me what is going on for you right now?” “What feelings are you experiencing?” Perspective taking can also involve you thinking back to past experiences and remembering what you felt like when you were there. If you have never experienced the same situation this person is describing, you can ask yourself “What might this feel like?”
2. Staying out of judgment. This is when you describe things as neither good nor bad. It also includes not shaming others for having the experience they are having. When someone shares something difficult with us, judgmental questions and comments might arise. Some examples would be, “What was your role in making this happen?” or “I don’t know why you are feeling this way about this.” Trying to fix the situation Instead of listening can also be disconnecting.
3. Recognizing emotion. When practicing empathy, it is important to look to others to learn from and recognize their emotional experience. What are they feeling? What kind of body language are they using that might clue you into what they are experiencing? Do they appear to be overwhelmed at this time or open to talking? Have you seen this person in a similar state before and can that inform how you might approach them now?
4. Communicate emotion. Once we recognize emotion in another person, it can be helpful to let them know that we are seeing them as well as their experience. Saying things like “I see that you are angry” or “It makes sense that you feel this way” are good examples. Communicating that message in the right way makes all the difference. Telling someone “I know what it’s like to feel sad” (or whatever emotion they’re feeling) shows them you understand their emotions. When this happens, the person dealing with the difficult emotions then feels they’re not alone. It’s also important to let the other person speak and not let it become about you in the moment.