Main Body

1 First Things First: What is Empathy?

What is Empathy?

Empathy is commonly understood as walking in someone else’s shoes or feeling the way someone else feels. The word empathy first appeared in the English language in 1909, created by the German psychologist Titchener who based it on the German word einfühlung meaning to feel into someone. Empathy is not simply about perceiving another’s emotional state, but it is also about accurately expressing that feeling and responding to another appropriately. Based on Titchener (1909), empathy is to be understood as distinct from sympathy; empathy requires a cognitive effort to take another’s perspective and a physical transference of feelings based on another’s emotional state. Brunero et al. (2010) underlined the importance of affective and cognitive impacts of empathy, noting it is “ the ability to perceive the meaning and feelings of another and to communicate those feelings to the other person” (p. 65). There are affective, cognitive and behavioural aspects of empathy, individuals who feel empathetic to another will be able to express those feelings in a cogent way, and act upon feelings and thoughts in a prosocial, helpful way.

Levels of Empathy

There are stages of developmental empathy according to research conducted by American psychologist Dr. Martin Hoffman.  Hoffman’s Four Levels of Empathy (1982) includes the earliest stage which is motor mimicry or so-called global empathy as might be found in infants under three years old. An infant might cry in pain when another is hurt; this early stage of empathy is undifferentiated and involuntary (Schaffer, 1996). A further developmental stage of empathy is found in egocentric empathy as might be found in adolescents. It takes the form of offering assistance to another without consideration for what another might need or want. In this shallow level of empathy, the individual might offer assistance based on what he/she/they might find pleasurable, there’s no attempt to take the perspective of the other (Schaffer, 1996). In the third stage, the empathy becomes more refined and ‘other-focussed.’ The responses offered to another in distress becomes more appropriate. The fourth and final level, the empathy looks out beyond the current state of another’s distress toward helping in a longer term, more proactive way. People with this level of empathy look to help entire groups of people, the vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed, and seek to help prevent conditions that might cause further distress and suffering (Schaffer, 1996). Overall, however, the higher levels of empathy require the individual feel “enough calm and receptivity so that subtle signals of feeling from another person can be received and mimicked” (Goleman, 1995).

Empathy and Success

The fictional lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird described empathy as key to being an effective lawyer and self-aware human being: “(y)ou never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Lee, p. 61). Individuals possessing higher levels of emotional intelligence, of which empathy and emotional regulation play a significant part, are said to have greater success in maintaining relationships, higher levels of persuasion and negotiation capability, and able to cope with times of stress and change more effectively (Furnham, 2012; Goleman, 2009). Ickes (1997) calls empathy “every day mind reading” and suggests it is a fundamental dimension of overall emotional intelligence (p. 2). There is contemporary research to suggest that individuals with strong empathy are more successful social, romantically and professionally (Goleman, 1995).

Empathy and Leadership

One of the critical qualities of an effective people leader is empathy (Bar-On & Parker, 2000; George, 2000; Goleman, 1995; Salovey & Mayer, 1990). Managers who are more empathetic and in tune with the emotional needs of their direct reports are viewed as more effective by their own bosses (Gentry, Web & Sandri, 2007). Managers with strong cognitive empathy get better performance from their direct reports (Goleman, 2013). According to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), empathetic leadership is positively related to improved job performance based on data analyzed from 6,731 managers from 38 countries (Gentry, Weber, & Sandri, 2007). The CCL research study also found that 50 per cent of managers are poor performers in their leadership roles due to a lack of emotional intelligence and gaps in empathy, and ineffective management can cost organizations millions of dollars a year in indirect and direct costs (Gentry, 2010; Gentry and Chappelow, 2009). The CCL 2007 research study suggests that empathy can be taught and practiced by professional learners.

Teaching Empathy

In a wide-reaching meta-analyses of empathy training studies, Teding Van Berkhout and Malouff (2015) looked at the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that offered a variety of training approaches in support of prosocial behaviour and empathy. The RCTs included in the meta-analyses included various methods of empathic interventions which included role-playing, games, lectures or a mixed methods approach, all contrasted with a randomized control group which did not receive empathic interventions. Participants in the various empathy training sessions were tested using a variety of self-report and objective measures. In the 2015 meta-analyses, it was uncovered that young adult and adult professional learners reported better results from the training sessions versus those involving youth and children. Studies that used a mixture of self-report and objective methods, particularly studies that required participants’ reflection on other’s emotions and provide ratings of empathic behaviour, were more effective at attaining training goals (Ted Van Berkhout & Malouff, 2015). Those empathy training studies that employed a four-pronged approach to pedagogy which included instruction, modeling, practice, and feedback had slightly higher effect sizes than other studies (Ted Van Berkhout & Malouff, 2015). Understanding that empathy is a complex, multipart process, it was noted that studies that targeted cognitive and behavioral, or cognitive, affective, and behavioral aspects of empathy showed slightly higher effect sizes or impacts those studies targeting only affective and cognitive empathy (Ted Van Berkhout & Malouff, 2015).



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In Their Moccasins by Sarena Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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