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 formost. 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 severalfoundation 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 andresearcher Carl Rogers –the pioneer of Person-Centered Therapy. The counseling skills we learned included congruence (genuineness), empathyand unconditional positive regard. I recall one professor getting stuck onempathy 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 toand 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
The Learning of Empathy From the Bible
Empathy requires us to abandon our own ideas, thoughts and scripts and really focus on attuning to the truths of others. This is best illustrated in Chapter 11 of the Book of John where we learn that Jesus wept (John 11:35). The Bible teaches us that Lazarus was dead, and after speaking with Martha and Mary and experiencing an atmosphere of mourning, Jesus wept. This weeping was not due to a lack of hope, for Jesus knew that He had come to raise Lazarus from the dead. However, He still wept. Not out of sympathy. Not for pity. Jesus wept because of His ability to understand the suffering of the people and to feel the impact of their grief.
The Learning of Empathy From the White House
The 44th President, Barack Obama, entered the White House with a message of hope and exited the White House highlighting the societal need for an increased demonstration of empathy. President Obama believed that empathy was necessary in order for Americans to empathize with the story of others andin order to create opportunities for all. Despite the budget deficit and trade deficit, President Obama noted that the empathy deficit was of greatest concern. He goes on to say, “Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen.”
Connecting with others through non-judgmental understanding has the potential to dramatically change the world in which we live.
The early teachings of Carl Rogers serve as the heart of building meaningful (therapeutic) relationships. The cry of our respected former President Barack Obama plants seeds of awareness and inspires a societal swing towards looking outside of self and being able to understand from the perspective of another. The research findings of Brene Brown are valued and provides proof of the benefits of an empathetic culture – free from judgement.
Empathy is making the effort to listen to what others have gone through, what they continue to go through… By building empathy, you build understanding. This building of understanding, builds feelings and feelings build connection. Connecting with others through non-judgmental understanding has the potential to dramatically change the world in which we live. As we move forward in serving others that look different, walk different, process different, feel different… Let empathy be the chosen route on our path of service. Jesus came to earth to walk with us, talk with us, sit with us, cry with us, and to share in our suffering. Jesus came to experience life with us. Jesus positioned himself to feel what we feel. Way before the study of Carl Rogers and Brene Brown, or before the presidency of Barack Obama, Jesus provided us with the blueprint for connecting with and serving in relationship with others.
May the heart of empathy trend in your heart and manifest in your relationships.