As we have been planning for Dynamic Empathy (September 8–11) Jane Olynyk and I have returned often to the idea of embodying empathy, and we have looked for ways of inviting program participants into a felt experience of empathy.
Some writers make a useful distinction between what they label perspective taking on the one hand and empathy on the other. In this view, perspective taking is the ability to imagine another person’s experience on three levels: spatial/perceptual (what the person senses or perceives); cognitive (what the person is thinking); and affective (what the person is feeling).
Importantly, imagining another person’s affect or feeling (the third level of perspective taking) is not the same thing as actually feeling another’s affect, and it is the latter that in this distinction counts as empathy (though empathy may include some of the former as well). There are of course times when understanding what another person is feeling, without actually feeling anything like it oneself, is perfectly appropriate. At other times, however, this feeling component will be crucial. In Dynamic Empathy, we want to practice cultivating such a feeling response to others.
One way of doing this, which I learned from Wayne Dodge as an intern at The Haven and have found very useful ever since, involves consciously adopting the body posture and movements of another person and noticing what feelings come up as you do. Martha Beck recommends a version of this, which she calls Reverse Engineering (the idea being that just as you might disassemble an engine to discover how it was originally put together, you can work back from the observable effects of an emotion to the emotion itself). Here’s how she describes it:
Think of someone you’d like to understand — your enigmatic boss, your distant mother, the romantic interest who may or may not return your affections. Remember a recent interaction you had with this person — especially one that left you baffled as to how they were really feeling. Now imitate, as closely as you can, the physical posture, facial expression, exact words, and vocal inflection they used during that encounter. Notice what emotions arise within you.
What you feel will probably be very close to whatever the other person was going through. For example, when I “reverse engineer” the behavior of people I experience as critical or aloof, I usually find myself flooded with feelings of shyness, shame, or fear. It’s a lesson that has saved me no end of worry and defensiveness.
Give it a go! I’d be interested to hear how you get on.
I hope you’ll join us for Dynamic Empathy, September 8–11, to discover and practice more ways of embodying empathy.