Human evolution has selected for mutual support as a mechanism of species survival. Empathy is vital to meaningful interpersonal communication and support. It’s your ability to understand what another person is experiencing, from within the other person's frame of reference. It’s virtually placing yourself in the other person’s situation, to better understand the sources of his or her feelings. All effective listening and other helping skills use empathy in a non-linear process. It’s the capacity to perceive, experience, respond to, and understand the emotional state and ideas of another person.
· When perceiving: hear and note the other’s words and accompanying gestures.
· When experiencing: process the verbal and other cues of another.
· When responding: make appropriate eye contact, acknowledge the communicator, provide feedback, and ask open-ended questions.
· When understanding: express your comprehension of the meaning of the communication.
The capacity to empathize is a valued and respected trait in society—it is considered a motivating factor for unselfish, prosocial behavior. Lack of empathy conveys indifference, and is sometimes interpreted as antisocial behavior.
You unconsciously use natural, instinctive empathy, but may also deliberately employ it to see how another person’s feelings relate to her specific context. You might intentionally simulate the beliefs, desires, character traits, and context of another person to see what feelings it provokes.
Although well-intentioned, empathy is not always welcome or socially desirable. Your own emotional background may affect or distort your emotional response to others. And if you over-invest your emotions, you risk compassion fatigue, which will reduce your helping effectiveness.
Empathy is strongest between people of similar personality, culture, living conditions, and when interaction is frequent and substantive. It’s a biologically programmed and culturally reinforced character quality which gradually develops and improves over time.
True empathy reflects caring and compassion. It’s the mortar that holds humanity together.