Words First, Medicine Later– On Empathy

Aleksandra Bubera

Interview published in Večernje novosti on June 20th 2010.

Empathy is the ability to understand others and to sympathize with them.

Just how many times have you said or heard someone say: “I have plenty of my own problems, I can’t worry about other people’s too” … This has become something we say almost without thinking, and we don’t even realize how selfish or insensitive we sound. It is a fact that we live in a time where it isn’t easy to take a moment and think about other people’s feelings. Despite that, just try to remember how many times you yourself were in a situation that you wished for someone to share your problems, your worries and your feelings with. If we understood how much it means to listen and to say a kind word, maybe we’d better understand empathy, which is something this society desperately needs. And it has always been a part of society. Even Hippocrates described it, in a single sentence “Words first, medicine later”! Our guest for our Život Plus(Life Plus) column is Aleksandra Bubera, M.D., psychiatrist and psychotherapist. She is here to tell us more about empathy, the ability to understand each other.

– Empathy is the ability to feel how another person feels in a given situation. Sympathy or compassion,  is an emotion which signals that we find other people’s feelings important, and that they themselves are important to us, which affirms a friendly relationship between us. Feelings that result from empathy and compassion are vicarious feelings. “Vicarious” meaning a representative, deputy, apostle. So, in a way, we can be other people’s representatives and be there for them.

Are we born with empathy, or do we develop it throughout life?

– We need socialisation in order to feel empathy and compassion. This means that we’re not born with these abilities, but that they are learned, i.e. empathy is developed throughout life. Small children, for instance, aren’t socialised. They function by following their needs and whims, and when they are quite young they feel no compassion for other people, animals… Their parents need to teach them: “It’s not OK to hit the kitten, the kitten is hurting, just as you hurt when someone hits you”.

How feasible is it to develop the ability for compassion with others at a time when people have increasingly less time for one another?

 – The modern way of living is quite different from communities in the past, when the ability for compassion was greatly nurtured and valued. Nowadays, children are brought up differently than back then – they are taught to care about themselves, their own wishes and needs more than about other people’s. Back in the day, people followed the biblical principle “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”, and the common interpretation was that one should make sacrifices for others. In contrast, nowadays that same sentence is narcissistically interpreted as “I come first, then after about 350 empty slots, everyone else.” Both interpretations are exaggerated. A realistic standpoint would be to take care of yourself first, but not to the extent that other people suffer for it (if they already don’t benefit from it). The circumstances and human society are constantly changing, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for indulgence, selfishness, narcissism and excessive hedonism.     

What ways are there to develop empathy?

– Building empathy must always begin with us and our impressions. We need to imagine how we would feel if we were in a certain situation, and it is our parents who start training us to do this. This is so callen “naïve” empathy, because it teach us about us, not other people, but that’s how we start. One of the functions of fairy tales, games, stories and poems for children is giving a child the ability to imagine situations that happen to other people, what they do, what they might feel and how they might think. It would be good to teach our children emotional literacy, first within the family, and then in kindergartens and schools. To do this, we must be emotionally literate ourselves to begin with. We need to teach children to understand themselves. We also need to teach them to take a step back from their own perspective and understand and accept that other people are sometimes quite different from them – that they have different wishes, reasoning and feelings from their own. If we ourselves understand it, and if we teach our children clearly, this won’t be a mystery to them any longer. It will become an automated activity, like riding a bike. Luckily enough, adults can also learn to be emotionally intelligent, emotionally literate and empathetic. There are many books, trainings and educational workshops that deal with people, feelings and relationships between people in various ways. For anyone interested in these topics, I’d like to recommend some books: Emotional Literacy; Intelligence with a Heart by Claude Steiner, Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Emocije(Serbian only)  by doctor Zoran Milivojević

Is it true that people with developed empathy have higher quality romantic relationships?

– It is. When you can accurately feel what is happening inside another person, you can understand them well and correctly. This lowers the chances of misunderstandings. In contrast, when you don’t have this ability, you tend to interpret other people, their feelings, reasoning and actions according to what you yourself would feel and do, and not as it really is. The ability to see the world through other people’s “lenses”, and not only through your own, provides a rich source of hues in the spectre of human relationships.       

Plenty of research has shown that empathy is an important trait of successful business people. If it is important, how come there’s an unwritten rule that emotions should stay out of business and the business environment? 

– To put it more precisely, the rule should read that objectivity is always better than subjectivity when it comes to business. Not bringing emotions into work is impossible, unless you’re a person completely cut-off from your emotions. That’s a rather unhealthy person, a robot. Our experience confirms the results of research that empathetic, emotionally and socially intelligent people are more successful at work than people who are not. As every job, to a lesser or greater extent, consists of communication and cooperation with others, the ability to assess how others feel in their own skin, what bothers them, what they wish for allows for easier and better communication with them. This also entails motivating them to cooperate in a way that is beneficial for everyone.

Why is empathy particularly important in a tense work environment?

– It helps us stay out of unnecessary conflicts and also helps us react adequately. Business people are expected to be at the top of their game, to understand the core of things and relationships between people. However, everyone expects the other person to be ready and able to understand and adapt. This is why there’s a recent trend of investing in HR and training in the field interpersonal skills, not just professional competencies. Some of the areas covered are communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal, becoming more sensible for different ways in which people communicate their feelings, etc.

It is important to differentiate empathy from pity. What’s the key difference?

– Pity is feeling sorry when something bad happens to a person. It is a form of love, and not, as we often tend to perceive it, an expression of contempt or animosity. When a person doesn’t want pity, it’s often because they think it is a form of animosity or gloating over their adversity. Or they believe that this kind of compassion is reserved for people not worthy enough or capable enough to fight with the battles that life brings them. Pity is, in fact, compassion for someone we’re close to who is suffering. That person is someone we see as worthy, and that’s why it’s important to us how they feel. So, when we feel pity for someone, it’s quite the opposite of feeling contempt. The person we sympathize with is one we perceive as worthy. Empathy is broader term and includes emotional understanding of all emotional states of others, not just pity.

How can one show empathy?

– Empathy can be shown verbally and non-verbally. The better people know each other, the fewer words are needed.  A hug, a look or holding someone’s hand can be enough. But in case we don’t know a person well, or don’t know them at all, it’s best to check with them whether we’ve understood the meaning of what they said and how they feel.

How important is empathy in everyday communication?

– It’s important in all relationships, and since most of us communicate with a great number of people during the day – at work, at home, in public transport, during vacation and leisure – we practically need it in every waking moment.

If empathy is the ability to put ourselves into another person’s position, to understand their feelings – is it possible to be too empathetic? – By definition, empathy is realistic, so we can’t overdo it. We can only overdo it by taking too much on as a result of knowing how someone feels and then coming to a conclusion that we must do something about it. If no one asked us to do anything, if we do more than is up to us, and meddle in things that we should stay out of, we’ve got ourselves tangled in a so-called “psychological game”. If don’t become aware of it, at best we’re going to end up feeling pretty uncomfortable. However, if we can really understand why someone feels the way they do, we’re probably going to have the ability to estimate which actions to take, and which not to take. So, I’d say “yes” to empathy as I don’t think we can overdo it since it’s precise and realistic.  

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