Can empathy be taught?
Empathy is a regularly used, but poorly understood, concept. It is confused with related words such as sympathy, pity, mercy, understanding etc. In older times, in my distinctive youth it was common to see younger people would pay respect to older people and kids, if a neighbor or known person required help, we would rush to help. Wishing pleasantries was common etiquette then. These small deeds kept a community unified and pretty safe.
But, as we have started living in more globalized society, a lot of these social conventions are diluted and lost. We have become more self-centered, and less bothered about our surroundings. In an age of super fast internet communication, we are no longer bounded by our own community and we are witnessing a big change of people have stopped bothering for their culture and societal norms.
Empathy is described in dictionary as ‘the action of understanding; to be aware of somebody’s pain or distress, being sensitive to another person’. It also means vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of others.
Can empathy be taught? NO. An Empath is born and not created. Empathy is a genetic trait. According to Edith Stein, a German phenomenologist, empathy can be facilitated. It also can be interrupted and blocked, but it cannot be forced to occur. Why is empathy so unique? According to Stein, empathy happens to us; it is indirectly given to us, it is elemental. When empathy occurs, we find ourselves experiencing it, but we cannot directly cause it to happen to us. This is the characteristic that makes the act of empathy exceptional and therefore it cannot be taught. Instead, promoting attitudes and behaviors such as self-awareness, tolerant, positively regard others, good listening skills, and self-confidence are suggested as important in the development of empathetic attitude. A lot of willingness is required in a person to develop empathetic approach.
According to Daniel Goleman – author of emotional intelligence, empathy is defined as understanding the emotional makeup of people and, treating people according to their emotional reactions. Goleman and other emotional intelligence researchers have constantly identified empathy as a core component of emotional intelligence and a powerful interpreter of success in many professions. Empathy helps us to develop deep levels of rapport and trust.
People who have poor empathy skills are not good team players at work place. They cannot make good leaders and they are disastrous in a team. It can lead to conflict due to lower understanding of other’s feelings, misinterpretation of action leading to misunderstanding. Without empathy we feel lonely within a relationship. Lack of empathy can cause organizations to make terrible blunders that isolate their customers, suppliers or employees and it can even provoke hostility inside and outside the organization.
It is important to understand that some people though they feel empathetic, have trouble with displaying their abilities. For instance, some adults would shrivel from offering a wounded person first aid, not because they are merciless but because they have trouble coping with their own emotional reactions to the other person’s plight. Empathy is displayed in various degrees; with practice and an understanding of psychology, we can probably develop stronger empathic skills. Empathy is a gift most people have, to varying degrees.
The development of empathy begins very early in life. The seeds for empathy are planted by receptive parenting during the infant-toddler period. Empathy then begins to grow during preschool. However, it is during the elementary school years that empathy either takes root or becomes a way of life or emotional insensitivity sets in. Empathetic teens and adults really blossom and give joy to those around them. Society tries to avoid those people who lack empathy.
I recall a beautiful and popular song; its lyrics go like this, “I feel sad when you’re sad, I feel glad when you’re glad, if you only knew what I’m going through, I just can’t smile without you.” This song describes empathy for the loved ones.