The Trend Toward Learning Empathy
Wikipedia defines empathy as the capacity to understand what another being is experiencing from within his or her frame of reference. By definition, empathy requires one to place themselves in the position of another human being. As a result, the ability to empathize with another is not a natural skill for most. The good news, however, is that empathy can be learned if one chooses to develop it.
The Learning of Empathy From the Classroom
As a graduate student studying the field of Professional Counseling, I recall taking several foundation courses that focused on teaching the necessary counseling skills that serve as a foundation for building therapeutic relationships. These essential skills were coined by famous psychologist and researcher Carl Rogers –the pioneer of Person-Centered Therapy. The counseling skills we learned included congruence (genuineness), empathy and unconditional positive regard. I recall one professor getting stuck on empathy because several students were presumptuous and misinformed in their understanding of the word. As you can imagine, several students confused empathy with sympathy. However, the professor simplified the concept by stating that empathy is “the ability to sit with, listen to and understand the feelings of the client…in that moment, it is not about you.” While listening to the lecture and classroom dialogue, I can remember taking inventory of my own ability to feel with (empathy) versus to feel for (sympathy).
The Learning of Empathy From Social Media
Now, the topic of empathy is currently trending through the passion and expertise of Dr. Brene Brown. Dr. Brown is an author and research professor for the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin. She has spent the past two decades studying the topic of empathy. What would cause a person to spend so much time on the topic? Perhaps it is the lack of grace that we have for our neighbor. Or maybe it is the lack of connection that is driving decades of racism to prevail. Perhaps it is the alarming divorce rates or the amount of children growing up feeling lonely and misunderstood. Empathy guru, Dr. Brown, believes that empathy fuels connection. In a world so full of division and disconnection, a greater presence of empathy could be the skill that has the power to change the world. In her findings, Dr. Brown references Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy which include:
- Perspective Taking – To be able to see the world as others see it
- Refraining from Judgment – To be nonjudgmental
- Recognizing Emotions – To understand another person’s feelings
- Communicating Emotions – To communicate your understanding of that person’s feeling