How to foster empathy

A cultural screaming match: Whether you’re scanning Facebook, watching the evening news or scrolling through your Twitter feed, that — all too often — is what you’ll encounter.

These days, both online and off, Republicans are yelling at Democrats; Black Lives Matter advocates are squaring off against police; and the rich, the poor, the middle class and the working class are all blaming each other for their own particular woes.

Rarely, it seems, do real conversations take place. Rarely is anyone listening to anyone who doesn’t already agree with them.

So, what can stop the shouting?

Grace, of course. And, perhaps, a little empathy.

Seeking to understand

At its most basic, empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. It’s a skill that allows you to understand — at least to some degree — what another person is going through, even if you’ve never experienced something similar yourself. It’s also the ability to communicate that understanding to another person.


So, for example, when a friend’s father dies, empathy is what enables you to both recognize their suffering and communicate that recognition to them. It’s saying, “This must be hard for you. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

Empathy is not, however, saying, “I’ve felt this way, too,” or “I’m grieving about this, too.”

That, explained Jerry Jo Gilham, professor of social work at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, is actually sympathy, which is “feeling what someone else feels.”

“With sympathy,” she said, “you internalize someone else’s feelings. With empathy, you understand them and acknowledge them, but you don’t feel them.”


According to Lianna Bennett, a clinical psychologist based in northern Virginia who teaches about empathy at the Institute for Psychological Sciences, empathy requires a sort of “dying to yourself.”

It asks you to temporarily set aside your own feelings or thoughts, she said, so that you can “actively focus on and listen to what another person is saying, both verbally and nonverbally.”

For that reason, some philosophers consider empathy a subset of the virtue of charity. It’s a kindness to hear someone and understand them, no matter how differently from you they may feel or think.

Janet Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, also believes empathy could be considered an intellectual virtue because it seeks to “understand what another person is going through and enter into their perspective of the world.”

In other words, it seeks the truth of a person’s experience.

In order to cultivate empathy, we must be willing to listen to others. Shutterstock

Empathy’s fruits

Whatever sort of virtue empathy is, it is an essential virtue, both personally and culturally.

On an interpersonal level, healthy relationships demand empathy. Strong marriages, friendships and family interactions depend upon individuals working to understand each other and communicate that understanding.

“The more someone understands our experiences, the stronger our connection is to them,” Bennett said. “That’s part of the reason why we fall in love with someone or become best friends with someone. We say, ‘This person gets me in a way nobody else does.’ We love that feeling of somebody seeing into the heart of us. We know we can share anything with that person and they’ll accept us. They may not have that same experience or feeling, but they accept that we do.”

Culturally, empathy is equally important. Similar to a healthy marriage, a healthy society depends upon people’s genuine willingness to listen and understand the experiences of groups of people different from their own.

When we don’t have that willingness — when during the election season a Hillary Clinton supporter dismissed all Donald Trump supporters as ignorant isolationists, or when a white person refuses to consider the legitimacy of the black community’s concerns about police brutality — the result is the current cultural shouting match.

“Culturally, there’s so much anger, hurt and divisiveness between generations, races and cultural groups,” Bennett said. “Each of us has our own hurts, our own anger, and we don’t want to hear what the other person has to say.”

Unfortunately, when that happens, we find ourselves unable to devise effective solutions to real problems, Bennett said.

“The more you argue with someone who has a different opinion than you, the more entrenched each person becomes in their opinion,” she said. “If we really want to get to know somebody and make effective change, we have to stop arguing and start listening. When we feel we are being listened to, we become less defensive and more open to hearing the other person.”

“The reason people yell is because the other person is not listening,” she said. “They think, ‘If I yell louder, you’ll listen.’ But it doesn’t work that way. When both people are yelling, nobody is listening.”

And when nobody is listening, no problems get solved.

“The refusal to understand or recognize the truth of another person’s experience is a refusal to recognize reality,” Smith said. “And when we don’t recognize reality, when we paint with a broad brush or try to fit everyone who’s different from us into a neat little slot, we come up with false solutions.”

Fears and failures

Reversing course and approaching the world around us with more empathy is necessary. But it’s not easy.

In part, Smith thinks our difficulty with empathy stems from a kind of protective instinct.

“There’s so much suffering in the world,” she said. “Acknowledging the depth and reality of another’s experience can, for some, be overwhelming.

“When we hear about another black child killed in Chicago,” she said, “we want to think, ‘Black mothers in Chicago must be used to their children being killed. It can’t possibly hurt them as much as it hurts a white mother in the suburbs.’ We don’t want to get close to their pain. We don’t want to acknowledge it as being as important or real as our own.”

For others, acknowledging the pain or experience of another can be difficult because their own pain or experiences blind them to the difficulties of others. Case in point: a member of the white working class, who grew up poor in a coal mining town in Appalachia, with few opportunities for work or education. Their own frustration can make it difficult for them to hear what a black college student has to say about white privilege. Similarly, a black mother who witnessed her son unfairly harassed by the police is going to struggle to empathize with the fears of the wife of a police officer.

“It requires a lot of work to set aside our own anger and hurt and hear somebody else’s pain,” Bennett said.

Do's and Don'ts of Empathy
Do listen. This is where empathy starts.

Doing that work has never been easy for fallen human beings. But it may be harder than ever today.

Over the years, experts have found an inverse relationship between narcissism and the ability to empathize. And with narcissism rates on the rise (over the past 30 years, the Narcissism Personality Inventory has shown a steady increase in narcissistic traits among America’s young people), empathy is on the decline. One study, for example, conducted by the sociology department at the University of Michigan in 2014, found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than college students just 10 years ago.

Complicating matters further is social media. Although, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can expose us to views and people different from the ones we know best, today’s social media platforms also make it easier to self-select what viewpoints we hear. People whose views we don’t like can be blocked, “unfriended” or hidden from our newsfeeds.

The same danger applies to watching only the cable news networks with which we agree or socializing only with people who share our political or religious values.

“The less we’re exposed to different ideas and experiences, the more difficult it can become to experience empathy,” Bennett said.

Making strides

The good news is that even the most reactionary among us can become more empathetic if we work at it.

“Empathy is a skill,” Gilham said. “You can learn it, but it requires practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets.”

To hone your empathy skills, Bennett recommended starting small: spend five minutes every day listening to a friend talk about their day without interjecting stories, advice or complaints of your own.

“Try reflecting back to them what they’re saying,” she said. “If they say, ‘I had a bad day,’ listen to them, then reply, ‘Wow, that was rough.’ Don’t say, ‘I had a bad day, too.’ Don’t tell them how they could have handled the situation differently or tell them they were wrong. Just listen.”

She also recommended reading more novels, which expose readers to the inner lives of others — albeit fictional others — and have been linked to higher levels of empathy.

Regardless of how we go about becoming more empathetic, however, for Christians, empathy is ultimately a non-negotiable.

“We’re all made in the image and likeness of God,” Smith said. “We need to recognize our feelings and opinions aren’t the only ones that matter and look outside ourselves so we can actually help others. Empathy is what brings us out of our post-lapsarian, whining, complaining, narcissistic state.”

Emily Stimpson Chapman is an OSV contributing editor.