There has been a great deal of ink and conversation around the topic of empathy recently. Famed authors like Brene Brown have reintroduced the concept and showed its relevance to everyday life. What is so fascinating about empathy is the power it has to help us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I remember listening to an interview a while ago and the host was speculating on future technology and the possibility of being able to read someone’s mind. He stated that he was so excited to have that ability one day, to which the guest replied, “we already do, it’s called empathy”. The point is we don’t need to wait for some Matrix-like plug-in power, or Vulcan mind meld to connect and understand how others are thinking or feeling, we already have that capability through empathy.
Empathy is an important part of human connection and understanding and Psychologist, Daniel Goleman has put a finer point on the concept, or actually differentiated between 3 types of empathy one can practice.
- The first is “cognitive empathy” which is a type of intellectual connection. This allows you to see what life as another person sees it. We are able to understand intellectually why a person thinks or believes what they do. This is critical for coming to agreements, making compromises, and an essential factor in our own personal growth. One of my favorite quotes speaks to this, from medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas, “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it.” When we can acknowledge that everyone has a reason for thinking and believing what they do, we can look at others not as adversaries or obstacles, but as fellow sojourners trying to understand truth in this world.
- The second type is “emotional empathy”. This goes with intellectual empathy, it is not opposed to it, but allows us to feel what another person feels. I think we can all recall times when we were younger, we did something wrong and were forced by a parent or teacher to apologize. Now for many of us, we would just go through the motions, saying sorry, but really the only thing we were feeling was fear of getting in trouble, or disappointment in getting caught, we didn’t actually feel sorry. But then there are other times when we are able to acknowledge the ways we hurt someone, we recognize the pain we caused them, and we can actually feel their pain at which point we truly are sorry. This is emotional empathy. Look at this idea from Aristotle, “A friend is a second self.” When we have developed a friendship with another, our well-being is tied to theirs. Their joys are our joys, their hardships are our hardships. This cannot be achieved without emotional empathy.
- The final category is what Goleman calls, “empathetic concern”. This is a type of genuine care for the other and for the other’s sake. Aristotle speaks to this too in the context of the best type of friendship in which a virtuous person cares for the other for the other’s sake, not because of the benefits one receives in friendship.
While psychologists discuss the need for empathy and how it improves our lives, we see that this is not a new idea, and it has been embedded within the context of friendships and “virtue” language for 2500 years. What Aristotle adds to this discussion on empathy however is that he only brings up the discussion on friendship and love after discussing a variety of other virtues, i.e. excellent habits, that humans need in order to enter into friendship well. What this means is that we cannot be empathetic while being greedy, selfish, or lazy. So while empathy itself is an important skill to develop, apart from the other human virtues of courage, wisdom, justice, and moderation to name a few, we won’t be able to be empathetic towards other. At best we can develop a second rate curiosity that may give us glimpses of others, but will not lead to true understanding or deep human connection.