Can Empathy Be Learned?

A bit of a debate is raging in literature regarding whether the emotional intelligence skill we call “empathy” can be learned.  Empathy is the ability to sense and share the emotions of others, to “feel” what others feel.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines empathy as “understanding so intimate that the feelings, thoughts and motives of one are readily comprehended by another.”

Some people seem to be naturally empathic.  They easily sense what others are feeling and can put themselves in others’ shoes without difficulty.

Others seem to have a greater challenge with empathy and compassion.

Research suggests that empathy is both an instinct as well as a learned skill.  There is a neurological basis for empathy.  Scientists have demonstrated that the same brain regions where we feel our own pain (physical or emotional) are activated when we observe others in pain.

Scientists have found that babies as young as four months sense their mothers’ feelings of stress and anxiety.  Researchers monitored babies’ heart rates and found their heart rates accelerate in response to their mothers’ agitated emotional state, and decrease again when their mothers are calm and relaxed.

At the same time, something happens as children grow up that cause them, as adults, to lose touch with that instinct.  Perhaps their parents did not demonstrate empathy, or discouraged discussion around emotional feelings in the family, or these individuals had a distant parent as a role model, or suffered from parental neglect, or received messages such as “big boys / girls don’t cry,” which caused the empathy instinct to go a bit dormant.

In fact, one study demonstrated that children are more likely to develop a strong sense of empathy when their own emotional needs are met at home (Barnett, 1987).

For individuals raised in homes where the expression of emotions was discouraged, it comes as no surprise that their feelings are a bit of mystery to them when they become adults.  And if we don’t understand, acknowledge, or even feel our own emotions, it is very difficult to sense the emotions of others.

Fortunately, empathy is also a learned skill that can be developed through coaching and practice.  In fact, studies indicate that people experience varying degrees of empathy based on their backgrounds, and that empathy can be learned and enhanced at any age.

As coaches, we can encourage our clients to imagine what another person may be going through.  None of us can completely know or fully understand what another person is experiencing, particularly if we haven’t had the same experience (e.g., going through chemotherapy, having been let go from a job), but we can imagine what that might be like for another.

Empathy begins with truly listening, and actually giving another person extra listening attention.  We don’t want to respond by talking about ourselves or another person we know who might be going through something similar.  This is special, focused time we want to give to listening to what the other person is going through.  We want to encourage them to voice what they are feeling.  In addition, we don’t want to gloss over their feelings (e.g., “you’ll be fine), but to actively listen and reflect back what we think they might be experiencing (e.g., “sounds like you’re feeling frustrated right now” or “sounds like you are very excited about this opportunity!”).   These responses help the other person identify and acknowledge her feelings in the moment, and the research demonstrates that identifying and naming our emotions helps us to manage our emotions (at least the negative ones).

One other tip for coaches: If our clients are talking exclusively about their own feelings in an emotionally charged situation, we can acknowledge what they are feeling and their perspective on the situation.  And we can then ask about the other people in this particular situation, and ask them what story the other people have.  We can even ask our clients to change seats (physically) and sit where another person would be sitting, and speak the story from the other person’s vantage point.  This can help a person widen their framework of understanding and develop empathy for others.

Important note: There are some individuals whose brains are simply not wired for empathy, and it is important for us, as coaches, to be able to recognize these situations and call in qualified professionals.  For example, psychologists have identified certain characteristics of sociopaths (those with “antisocial personality disorder” – or ASPD) as having a “pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood” (American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 2000).

Sociopaths can appear charming, but they can be manipulative and cunning.  They may be hostile under the surface, domineering, and see others as instruments to be used.  They lack remorse, shame, guilt and empathy.  In fact, they tend to have contempt for others’ feelings of distress and will readily take advantage of them.  Approximately four percent of the population can be characterized as having sociopathic tendencies.  To date, there is no known treatment for ASPD.

In addition, some individuals suffer from a disorder known as Asperger’s Syndrome, or other high-functioning autism.  While these individuals may (or may not) experience a full spectrum of emotion, they exhibit great difficulty with social interaction, with nonverbal communication skills (making eye contact, reading facial expressions, tone, gestures and posture), and generally lack the ability to demonstrate empathy.

It is thought that Asperger’s and autism has a genetic basis, but no specific gene has yet been identified as the cause.  Neuroscientists using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have found evidence that brain connections involving mirror neurons (which allow for imitation) may be impaired, as well as other neurological activity being under-developed, under-connected and under-functioning.

There is no identified treatment; however, interventions aimed at improving social functioning have proved effective (e.g., teaching social and communication skills).

Once again, for coaches, if we suspect we may be working with an individual with Asperberger’s or other high-functioning autism, it is best to seek the help of a qualified professional or specializes in this area.

One last note for coaches:  As coaches, we often feel a great deal of empathy for our clients.  In extreme situations, this can result in “compassion fatigue” or just plain burnout.  We must be mindful of caring too much what our clients may be experiencing, for when we experience excessive empathy, our effectiveness as coaches is diminished.   Let’s remember to engage in our own self care, approaching our lives overall with gratitude, a bit of humor, curiosity, support from others, relaxation and work / life balance.

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