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Empathy Explains Why, but not How.

Distinguishing empathy from empathizing helps us become better scientists of empathy.

In part 1 of this series, I shared my first draft at defining “empathy” as follows:

Empathy is a word invented to explain our potential to move from:

A. Feeling separate from an “other” to
B. Feeling one with them.

https://thriveglobal.com/stories/empathy-is-an-explanation/

This definition will evolve in this article. So please stay tuned.

The Importance of Definitions

To be clear, I’m not defining “empathy” to claim authority over it.

“Then why are you doing it?” You may ask.

First of all, to reduce misunderstandings.

In Chinese, the character for “name (名)” is made of two characters 夕 and 口. The top character depicts the moon (夕) and connotes “night.” The lower character depicts a mouth (口) and connotes “to make a sound.” One interpretation of the character for “name (名)” is that when it gets dark outside, you have to say your name out loud so others can know who you are. The implication is that when it’s bright outside, we can see each other, thus a name is no longer necessary for recognition.

I feel the same way about defining words.

As I write this article, I’m imagining two people in the dark. One is you, the reader. The other is me, the writer. I’m in the dark on how you, the reader, define the word “empathy.”[1] I’m choosing to say my definition out loud in hopes that at least you know what I’m talking about.

To illustrate how easily misunderstandings can arise, let me show my definition of empathy with a graphic aide.

Empathy is a word invented to explain our potential to move from A to B.

When I ask people to point out any new information they have gathered from this graphic aide, some people say that they had imagined B to be one circle instead of two. Why? Because I had used the word one in my definition. That’s a reasonable assumption. Yet, what I had intended to communicate was two circles becoming one chain. Not two circles becoming one circle.

Having learned of this possibility of misunderstanding, I have since revised my definition as follows.

Empathy is a word invented to explain our potential to move from:

A. Feeling disconnected or separate from an “other” to
B. Feeling connected as one with them.

Going Beyond Agreeing to Disagree

The second reason why I have defined the word “empathy” is that I want to make a distinction between an experience and an explanation of why that experience is possible.

This is important for two reasons. One, such distinction can support our individual pursuit of a more in-depth understanding of empathy. Two, without such distinction I often find people arguing in the following way, unable to go beyond agreeing to disagree.

Person 1 says empathy is something we can develop. Person 2 says empathy promotes bias. If you take both their words at face value, it can sound as if the more we develop empathy the more we’ll promote bias. So Person 2 may conclude that empathy is bad! But to their surprise Person 1 disagrees and says “No! Empathy can help us overcome our biases!”

How is it that one person says empathy can promote bias, while another person says empathy can help us overcome bias?

This makes no sense.

It’s impossible.

A paradox!

Except… This is very much possible when people use the word empathy to mean both an experience and an explanation of why such experience is possible.

Let me explain.

Part of what Person 2 is saying is that it’s possible that we feel connected as one with someone while simultaneously feeling disconnected or separate from someone else. If you’ve ever taken sides in an argument, you know this to be true. Not only that, but if we stay that way, it is also true that we may end up promoting a bias toward one person at the expense of another. This means Person 2 is right.

At the same time, what’s important to note here is that what Person 2 is talking about is the experience of feeling connected as one. In other words, we’re not talking about empathy, if we define empathy as an explanation, not an experience.

Now, what if we gave the experience of feeling connected as one a different name, like empathizing? If we can do that, we can also call the experience of feeling disconnected or separate from an other, not empathizing.

With these two new words, we can now say that if we only empathize with one person and not others, we may indeed promote a bias. At the same time, if empathy is an explanation of our potential to move from not empathizing to empathizing, we can also say that the more empathy we develop the greater our potential to also empathize with people with whom we currently do not empathize. In other words, empathy can indeed help us overcome our biases. This means Person 1 is also right.

Paradox dissolved.

Having learned of this possibility of misunderstanding, I have since revised my definition again as follows.

Empathy is a word invented to explain our potential to move from:

A. Not Empathizing: Feeling disconnected or separate from an “other” to
B. Empathizing: Feeling connected as one with them.

Becoming a Scientist of Empathy

Having made a distinction between an experience and an explanation of why that experience is possible, let me return to my earlier claim that such distinction can support our individual pursuit of a more in-depth understanding of empathy.

When we feel connected as one with an “other,” we know. We just do. Feeling disconnected or separate from an “other,” can, at times, be more subtle, but it is knowable. In other words, we can independently acquire empirical evidence of when we empathize or not empathize.

At the same time, such empirical evidence says nothing about how such an experience was possible. Empathy, as an explanation, fills a gap by standing in as the why, but it doesn’t go into the detail of the how. So what we have in addition to empathy are many hypotheses.

For example, you may have felt disconnected from someone who said or did something that, to you, seemed stupid. But after you appreciated their situation, their needs, and the thought process they used to navigate their situation and fulfill their needs, you may have become capable of feeling connected as one with them. Based on this observation, you may come up with a hypothesis that says “To move from not empathizing to empathizing, we need to see things from that other person’s perspective.” This is one hypothesis often associated with how empathy works.

On the other hand, you may have also had an experience where you felt connected as one with someone, yet you did not see anything from their perspective. Instead, it was something about the way they listened to you that helped you feel connected as one with them. Based on this observation, you may come up with another hypothesis that says “To move from not empathizing to empathizing, we need to be listened to by them in a particular way.” This is another hypothesis often associated with how empathy works.

How about another one? You may have taken a mime class, where you felt connected as one with another person while mirroring their behavior. Here, there was no seeing from their perspective or even being listened to in a particular way. Based on this observation, you may come up with yet another hypothesis that says “To move from not empathizing to empathizing, we need to mirror their behavior.” This is also a hypothesis often associated with how empathy works.

The list goes on.

In fact, I invite you to come up with as many hypotheses as you’d like. I also invite you to test them in different situations and discuss your findings with others doing the same thing. You may learn that there are different ways to hypothesize about the same observations you’ve made.

This is why I believe the distinction between empathy and empathizing can support our individual pursuit of a more in-depth understanding of empathy.

With the distinction between empathy and empathizing in place, we no longer have to take other people’s opinions on what empathy is as the gospel. We can think and decide for ourselves through experimentation. As physicist Richard Feynman once said, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

I believe a provision of such a simple framework that empowers us to pursue a more in-depth understanding of empathy will make a significant difference in reflecting on the 3 questions I had set forth at the beginning of this series.

  1. What does it mean to thrive together?
  2. Why does it matter to be together?
  3. How can we thrive together?

Stay tuned for Part 3.


[1] Batson, Daniel. “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related But Distinct Phenomena.” In The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Edited by Jean Decety and William John Ickes. Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 2009. 3–15. 4.

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