What Empathy is – and Why We Need It
We know that empathy is a deeply important quality, which enables us to see the world as it looks through other, normally very different, eyes. But we may be unsure quite how to achieve this prized perspective.
We may think of it as the business of escaping our normal egoism, of leaving the self – and putting ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s experience. But the trick for empathy might be slightly different. It isn’t so much about transcending ourselves as it is about practicing an unusual kind of introspection, which takes us into less familiar parts of our own minds.
The person who lacks empathy isn’t so much selfish as generally not fully alive to the darker, less familiar, more weird recesses of themselves: the parts that are a range of things that they aren’t quite most of the time: the subordinate bits that are, in secret, a little aristocratic, surprisingly male or female, a thief or a child, when society expects them to be merely democratic, a man, a woman, a law abiding citizen or an adult.
The unempathetic person isn’t narrowly refusing the challenge of entering into the mind of another person, they are wary of treading with sufficient imagination into their own consciousness. Behind the reserve of the unempathetic is a fear of running into troubling emotions. They may be confident yet don’t engage with memories of what it was like to stutter and be lost in the early years. They are successful but put aside the anguished apprehensions of rejection and failure that sometimes come in nightmares and would connect them with some of the people they walk contemptuously past in the streets. The long-married person harbours a promiscuous single self they pretend not to recognise. In the life of the quiet, serious individual there will have been moments, quickly forgotten, when they felt like throwing their books into the river and swearing at their teacher. We contain multitudes within us that we don’t dare to know. The opposite of empathy isn’t just thinking of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself in limited ways.
Empathy needn’t mean we end up thinking the other person is saintly: we might still conclude that they are – for instance – not to be trusted, that they shouldn’t get the job or that we’d definitely better not marry them (just as in a court case the aim is to arrive at justice, not to acquit every defendant). But the deeper result is that we don’t merely see the other as a caricature. We understand how they came to be the way they are and recognise along the way, if we are frank, how many of their less than lovely qualities we share. Truly empathetic people suspect that there are few kinds of madnesses of which they couldn’t, in certain circumstances, be capable – and are accordingly un-self-righteous.
The more we bring our knowledge of ourselves to bear on others, the richer can be our insights into them. We start to know their deeper secrets and wishes, without asking. If we encounter someone who is always joking and seems very cheery, the empathetic person keeps in mind – because they know so well how they have been in certain of their own manic moods – that this ebullience is almost certainly in some way masking a sad and hurt aspect. They sense this because they can recall from their own experience moments when they adopted a brave and positive manner precisely when they felt close to collapse.
Bringing our experience to bear matters immensely in commercial situations. What we call good service is, in essence, the fruit of empathy. When a waiter hovers at the table and asks repeatedly if everyone is having a nice time, it is simply because they have failed to factor in their own experience of irritation at overly ingratiating attention.
Empathy is often framed as a moral duty and interpreted as directly opposed to self-interest. In order to be more empathetic – the line goes – we have to abandon our own personal well-being and success. But this call to greater empathy more or less ensures its own failure. Our ingrained need to look after ourselves will reliably triumph.
A more accurate understanding of empathy, however, doesn’t see it as opposed to our own interests. The reality is that we are very often hampered and derailed in our projects because we’re not empathetic enough, not sensitive enough to what’s going on for the people we’re trying to do things with, or to whom we aim to sell our services.
Empathy is an essential resource for doing what we want more successfully, which captures a fundamental hope of civilisation: that being good should not be the enemy of prosperity.
Find out more about the importance of developing empathy in our class on Empathy.