Why Is Empathy Important?

When we understand what others are feeling and share in those feelings without being carried away, we’re able to react appropriately to these feelings.
Community/Publishing Manager at Insight Timer
why is empathy important
Community/Publishing Manager at Insight Timer

From its history and science to how it makes us better people — explore why empathy is important and three practices to increase it.

A History of Empathy

Although empathy is a naturally occurring human behavior, “empathy” as an English word is relatively new, coined in 1873 by German philosophers Robert Vischer (1847-1933) and Hermann Lozte (1817-1881). Originally from the German einfühlung, or “feeling into,” empathy is translated today as the ability to feel the emotions of others.

The English “empathy” surfaced in 1908 and combines the Greek “em” for “in” and “pathos” for “feeling.” By the late 1940s, psychologists were emphasizing interpersonal connection as core to the concept of empathy. In the 1950s, this connection was further refined to point out that during an experience of empathy, one can understand the feelings of another without themselves becoming affected by those feelings.

This ability to remain balanced and stable, even as we recognize the feelings and emotions of others is akin to the Buddhist concept of equanimity, Uppekha in Pali, or Upeksha in Sanskrit. It is the balanced mindfulness that comes with understanding that everyone is to be loved equally and that all beings are the same in their potential to recognize their capacity for limitless love.

Read more: Discover how practicing forgiveness is interconnected with mindfulness.

The Science of Empathy

With the discovery of mirror neurons in chimps in the 1990s, our scientific understanding of the physical mechanism of empathy broadened. Mirror neurons are cells that fire not only when an animal acts, but when they see other animals undertaking this same action.

Mirror neurons thus negate the separation between doing something and seeing it done.

When I see you smile, smiling neurons in my body begin to fire off and evoke all the feelings and emotions I associate with smiling. By seeing you smile, I get to experience your smile as if I was smiling.

Reducing this gap between subject and object further helps us feel connected, less separate.

Why Empathy Matters

When we’re able to share in the feelings of others without being consumed by those feelings, we’re able to be of help. Empathy is a necessary precursor to taking compassionate action. Empathy is what allows us to step outside of ourselves and our every-day self-centered focus.

When we understand what others are feeling, and share in those feelings without being carried away, we’re able to react appropriately to these feelings. Appropriate reactions can be as simple as saying, “I understand you, and I’m sorry.” We become better friends, better managers, better leaders, and all-around better humans.

Empathy helps us anticipate the needs of others in social and business settings. It gives us the power to be mindful of our actions before they cause anyone pain. For those already experiencing hardship, empathy prevents us from over-reacting to anyone else’s strong emotions and leads us to effective, helpful responses instead. In this way, empathy prevents us from causing further pain to anyone who is already suffering.

Imagine a world in which everyone was mindful of the effects of their actions on others, this is the beautiful world made possible through empathy.

What Empathy is Not

The crux of empathy is the associated feeling of connection. One can be sympathetic and say “I’m sorry” without feeling empathy. Pity says “I feel sorry for you, but I am separate from you.”  It’s what allows us to walk past a homeless person on the street without thinking. We don’t feel their hardship as connected to ours.

Empathy, on the other hand, says “I feel sorry for you because the pain I’ve experienced helps me recognize the pain you’re experiencing. I recognize that in our experience of pain, we are the same.”

Compassion is what occurs when empathy is taken one step further and drives action. Compassion is what allows one to reach out a hand to the homeless person, or in the least, desire to.

Empathy is step zero in developing compassion, and we’d all be better off in a compassionate world.

Read more: Discover five steps of a curious, mindful, and compassionate communication on social media.

3 Tools for Increasing Empathy

Practice Stillness

Empathy requires mindfulness. To “feel into” others, as the word implies, requires leaving the space of your own head, and entering someone else’s. We are literally “stuck in our heads” when we’re distracted. Meditation is an excellent practice for reducing our susceptibility to distraction.

Empathy requires paying attention. Through the practice of meditation, we free up space by learning how to cease chasing distraction, how to quiet the mind and reach greater stillness. In this space and stillness, we become better listeners. We’re able to tune in to the experiences of others, and simultaneously increase awareness of our own emotional response.

I can understand that you are experiencing anger, and I can relate to that anger by remembering what it feels like in my own body, without identifying with anger and becoming angry myself.

Start finding stillness now with the help of these guided meditations for empathy and compassion by popular meditation teachers:

  1. Empathy & Compassion Meditation Jessica Amos 18:44
  2. Gateway to Empathy Tony Brady 12:16
  3. Universal Compassion Andy Hobson 33:54
  4. Compassion for Self and All Jack Kornfield 7:30
  5. Quick Compassion Meg James 13:27

Practice Active Listening

Active listening is listening with all our senses. It’s the mindfulness practice of listening.

While we hear the sounds other people are saying, empathy and the involvement of mirror neurons necessitates a felt response. Active listening may involve not only listening with the ears, but with the eyes and the body itself. What is the person’s body language telling you, in addition to what they are saying? Are you feeling a certain energy in your own body? Your gut?

Active listening involves questioning everything you notice. This may manifest as actual questions for the person, putting effort into understanding what someone is expressing to you. It also means questioning your response to what it is that you’re hearing with your body and mind.

Active listening includes examining our personal biases, opinions, and past experiences to discover how they could be clouding our view. While we’ll never completely be free from our own historically loaded perspectives, we can try, and empathy helps.

Practice Exchanging Self For Others

The traditional Buddhist practice of exchanging self for others is a bit more nuanced than simply “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”.

When imagining walking in another’s shoes, we may notice that we immediately put ourselves in a position of superiority. We put ourselves in a position of saying ‘I wouldn’t do that’, or ‘I wouldn’t feel that if I were in their shoes’. Secondly, when imagining ourselves as another, we are more vulnerable to becoming consumed by the emotions and pain of another. A 2017 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology establishes the correlation between personal distress and taking on the first-person experience of walking in another’s shoes.

Both the mindfulness practices mentioned above and the practice of exchanging self for others reduce and eliminate this personal distress. In the practice of exchanging self and others, the exchange is between the person on whom we focus the most, ourselves, and another. We swap our self-centeredness for a commitment to help others instead.

Through meditation, we understand that all our troubles come from putting ourselves first, in both intention and action. All our happiness comes from putting others first instead. The empathy and sense of equanimity developed through this practice lead to compassion, which is where the real importance of empathy lies.

Discover hundreds of free guided meditations for compassion.

The Importance of Empathy

We care about the pain of others when we understand that we’re all connected. At the same time, we come to an understanding that all is connected, when we begin to care about others.

Empathy allows us to share in both the pain and happiness of others not only in a conceptual way, as sympathy does, but as a very real felt sense.

As the precursor to compassion, empathy drives the actions which help us make the world a better place. And because we are all connected, we each benefit from a world of empathetic, compassionate actors.

Read more about the power of giving thanks.

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