Frequently we read and hear the word empathy. But what is the actual meaning of empathy? Good to reflect on before running an empathy test. I like Store Norske Leksikon’s definition of empathy:
«Empathy, ability to identify, understand and recognize the validity of others’ emotional state and reactions.»
Crying over a sad movie, or giving money to beggars, is not necessarily empathy. The weeping and the gift to the beggar is rather an expression of sympathy. We feel sorry for the people in the movie or the beggar.
Empathy is the ability to try to understand what the other is feeling and thinking. This is not necessarily a conscious act. We don’t think «how is he feeling now?». The experience of understanding the feelings and thinking of others can arise abrupt and without any conscious effort. We react, based on our history and experiences.
We never know what others feel and think
Occasionally we hear people say «I know exactly how you feel.» They don’t. We cannot know how others feel and think. Perhaps we have had feelings and thoughts related to a similar situation. We assume that the other is feeling the same way. But this is a discount. We don’t really know. If the other has lost someone close, it can be weird and insulting that others claim to know how they feel. Even worse if they feel like telling us how awful it was for them.
The same applies to «I know exactly what you’re thinking.» We are not mind readers.
Claiming I know exactly what others feel and think is all about selfishness, not empathy.
If we have been in a similar situation as the other, we are more capable of an empathetic approach.
When we assume that we know exactly what the other is feeling and thinking, it is all about our own thoughts and feelings. Maybe we have experienced losing someone close to us, and thoughts and emotions connected to this loss are triggered. We know exactly how it was for us, but we do not know how it is for the other person. This insight is essential for an empathetic approach.
We easily remember what we needed in our own difficult situation, and we often feel like giving what we needed, to the other. But this person might have different needs. It must be checked out.
Having experienced a similar situation as the other, gives an understanding of the situation. If we’ve never lost someone we loved, we may encourage the other to move on after a few months. If we have lost someone close, it is easier to give the permission to use the time they need.
The challenge of separating myself from the other
An empathetic approach is easier when we have experienced a similar situation. And it is essential to identify, understand and recognize the validity of others’ emotional state and reactions. Accepting that the other might feel and think different than I did. That we are two separate individuals, and the feelings and thought of the both of us are valid and OK.
If you experienced strong emotions and had a tough time in a similar situation, you have a guideline to an empathetic approach. Until the other convey their feelings and thoughts, our assumptions about the other are nothing but fantasies.
An empathic person accepts that the feelings of others might be different from his own in the same, or a similar situation.
While I feel a deep sadness over the loss of my father, a client might express relief that the old man finally is gone. How I react to this, says something about my empathic ability. «How can you say something like that!», is not an expression of empathy. It’s judging his reaction.
«Before my dad died, I never went to funerals. I thought that when one is dead, it doesn’t matter if I go to the funeral or not. At dad’s funeral, I was so thankful to everyone who came, and I finally realized that we go to funerals for those who are left. «
If we have experienced a similar situation as the other, an empathetic approach is easier. It is crucial to have in mind that we are two separate individuals, and accept that the other’s feelings and thoughts will be different from mine.
About the empathy test
The Empaty test is based on the self-report questionnaire Empathy Quotient (EQ) , developed by Simon Baron-Cohen and Sally Wheelwright. If you find questions that you find totally irrelevant to empathy, you’re absolutely right. There are 60 questions, and 40 are relevant to empathy.