Aug 282013

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.

  3 Responses to “Embodying Empathy”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful article Toby.

    I am wondering if there is one essential component to empathy, especially in comparison to sympathy. I like the definition below which concludes that you must have had a very similar experience to feel empathy, otherwise we can only feel sympathetic towards someone.

    What do you think?


    Both empathy and sympathy are feelings concerning other people. Sympathy is literally ‘feeling with’ – compassion for or commiseration with another person. Empathy, by contrast, is literally ‘feeling into’ – the ability to project one’s personality into another person and more fully understand that person. Sympathy derives from Latin and Greek words meaning ‘having a fellow feeling’. The term empathy originated in psychology (translation of a German term, c. 1903) and has now come to mean the ability to imagine or project oneself into another person’s position and experience all the sensations involved in that position. You feel empathy when you’ve “been there”, and sympathy when you haven’t.

    • Hi Dave. Thanks for raising this question. First, I think it’s worth saying that the word empathy is used in a lot of different ways (one of the authors I’ve been reading lists eight distinct, commonly used meaning), and sympathy too. I try to focus on the various ideas that the words are used to refer to rather than get stuck on coming up with the “right” definition. That said, here are a few thoughts on how empathy and sympathy might differ, with reference to the passage you quoted.

      I think a lot depends on what the writer means by “having been there.” If it’s what you paraphrase, Dave, as empathy requiring having had “a very similar experience,” then I don’t think I agree. However, I’m not sure that’s what the writer means. I think it’s possible that they use having “been there” as a way of saying that you’ve made an attempt to “go over to the other side,” that is to enter into another person’s world and experience it as they experience it. If so, that’s much closer to the way Jane and I talk about empathy in our program.

      I think this relates to the distinction I made a couple of posts back (The Wonder and the Challenge of Empathy) between what it would be like for me to be in your situation, and what it is like for you to be in your situation. If I have been in a very similar situation to you, I know what it was like for me to be in those circumstances; it doesn’t however mean that I know what it’s like for you to be in those circumstances (though it could give me some insight into how you might be experiencing it). This is why bereaved people often react aversely to probably well-intentioned statements such as “I know how you must be feeling.” The internal response is “No you don’t,” and an experience that you do not really see me for me, perhaps that you don’t really care, that you are not really open to or interested in what I am experiencing.

      The problem I suppose is that “having been there” in the fullest sense is simply not possible. I may have experienced very similar things to you, but I have never been you, and never will be. What I can do is open myself to the fact that you experience things differently to me, and through the exercise of imagination and curiosity – through contact with you – I can begin to get a sense of your perspective. Then I can perhaps share in what you are feeling, which may be quite different from what I felt in similar circumstances. That’s the territory that I think of as empathy.

      Ben and Jock distinguish between sympathy and empathy in terms of their power-strength model. For them, sympathy involves “elevating oneself over the other and diminishing the other”; while empathy involves “feeling close and identified with the other … both persons are equal and responsible for themselves.” In the example of the bereaved person above, assuming that I know how you are feeling because I’ve “been there” myself would likely count as sympathizing, precludes curiosity about how you might actually be feeling, and may lead me to think that I also know better than you what you should do to “get over it.”

      Here’s a variation on this theme, from Alfie Kohn: “Sympathy is a particular response to another’s plight characterized by pity or concern, while empathy consists in sharing the other’s affect, whatever it happens to be.”

      I hope this is useful/interesting to you, Dave, and welcome hearing more from you. Is there something particularly helpful to you about the distinction between “having been there” or not? I might have a go at writing a post about this, as I think only a few people other than you and me will see this conversation (and hello to anyone who does!)

      • Hi Toby

        I agree that this is not about dictionary definitions and perhaps because we are all so unique, then empathy may be more an individual experience than a universal felt experience.

        I was watching the movie last night ‘ 4 remarkable women’. A real life story about 4 women who got cancer, their struggles and their relationships. Twice, I found myself in tears. The first as the women experienced their physical feminine body loss after a mastectomy and their partners loving responses. Being a man, it is hard to even imagine how a woman feels at this profound loss and yet I still cried. The second time was seeing the husband’s sadness when his wife died and the children too. As this has not happened in my life, I could only imagine how awful this must be for the husband after so many years together. My response would be similar, if these were real friends with this experience, except for the additional interaction between us.

        My depth of feelings are quite different (temporary and less personal) than when I have also had a similar life experience. I remember when I was younger and parents of friends had died, I felt sad for them but not empathetic. Now I have lost both parents, I shared that experience quite differently with close friends who have lost their parents. In the one situation, it is only my imagination that creates my response. In the other, it is based on my memory and personal experience.

        I realize that at times there is very little difference between something imagined and something remembered, so perhaps that is a way to include them both under empathy? I can also see where the rawness of my own experience and feelings could prevent me for being truly empathetic.

        I notice that you add the element of curiosity, as a way to distinguish between the two and this can certainly increase the connection between two people. At other times, just listening is enough. In some way deeply connecting with another, with or without words.

        Still no conclusion from this for me, but appreciating our dialogue.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: