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Gerardo Castillo Ceballos, School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra

Overvaluation and trivialization of empathy

Sun, 16 Jun 2019 09:27:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The word empathy is derived from the Greek word empátheia. It is also called interpersonal intelligence (a term coined by Howard Gardner). It is thecognitive and affective skill of a person to understand the emotional universe of another. Coaching experts often explain it with a metaphor by Carl Rogers: "It is putting yourself in the other person's shoes. I cannot understand and comfort a person who has lost a family member by taking as reference letter what I usually feel in that subject of situations; I need to grasp what she feels and how she feels it.

For Rogers, empathy is "an attempt to grasp and understand a person's inner world with all the nuances of feelings and meanings that are real to him; not to you, but to him."

This capacity for emotional intelligence allows us to understand people even when we disagree with them. We do not seek to judge others or seek their approval. We listen to understand, not to respond.

The process of empathizing consists of three phases: 1. Observing non-verbal behavior (which reflects people's feelings and emotions). 2. Active listening. 3. Understanding and showing that we have understood.

Empathy today is overrated. Companies look for workers with empathic capacity; leaders are asked to be empathic; teachers must foster empathy with their students and also with each other; fidelity in marital unions is attributed to empathy. A person who is not empathetic is frowned upon.

Empathy is a buzzword, even in the political arena. When it is a sincere attitude, it strengthens the leadership of the rulers; on the other hand, when it is apparent and at the service of partisan political objectives, it discredits the concept and those who practice it. In the face of a national tragedy, the empathetic leader goes personally and first to the accident site to accompany the relatives in their grief and coordinate relief actions; on the other hand, the non-empathetic ruler will limit himself to sending a condolence telegram.

 When a political party obtains a bad electoral result it is not usually attributed to the poor quality of its proposals, but to the fact that it has not known how to communicate them; the solution is not to rectify its ideology or its program, but simply to "empathize more with the people".

Empathizing runs the risk of becoming increasingly emotional and less rational. To warn us against this evil, Paul Bloom wrote his book "Against Empathy: In Defense of Rational Compassion". I quote a statement taken from the foreword: "Empathy has its merits, but it is a mediocre moral guide . It can lead us to make irrational and unjust decisions." Elsewhere he argues that the use of emotional empathy, whether in politics or in the media, leads to discriminatory, biased and short-sighted attitudes.

In times past, when someone was sympathetic and compassionate, they tried not to boast about it. Today's empathetic converts, on the other hand, like to repeat that they have these qualities.

Rogers warns us of the risk of confusing the role of the "empathizer" with that of the "empathized": "When you're striving to grasp the whole inner world of another person, it completely absorbs you. And the only way you can do that is if you're confident enough that you can get back to your own self and your own values; not get lost in the other person's world."

Subsequently, Jeremy Rifkin has proposed including reason in the empathic process. Reason is not only abstraction; it also includes reflection, introspection and contemplation. Reason is never separated from experience, being a means to understand and manage it.

 The empathic moment demands a certain detachment. We have to be open to feel the suffering of the other as if it were our own, but without that suffering absorbing us and annulling the capacity of the self to be a unique and separate entity.

 It is very important to react against the trivialization of empathy, given its possibilities: it is a fundamental resource for conflict resolution; it allows us to gather more and better information; it identifies the emotions of others and to understand points of view different from our own; financial aid to diminish unpleasant emotional states, such as anger and sadness, and to reinforce pleasant emotional states, such as joy. Empathy also helps us to generate stronger bonds with others and to maintain deeper and more lasting relationships.