Can Empathy Be Taught?
Research shows that empathy is a powerful social tool. Can it be learned?
Posted Oct 18, 2018
A client recently told me that a friend had failed to show up for an outing they had been planning together for several weeks. “What kind of friend would do that?” they wanted to know. “I never would.”
A friend shared that a co-worker had taken credit for her (my friend’s) work. “How could she do that?” she wanted to know. “I don’t understand. She knows I had really worked hard on that project. It’s so wrong.”
Another friend said that a woman he had been dating had suddenly stopped being available to go out. “I asked her what had happened,” he said, “but she didn’t answer my calls. She stopped responding to texts or to emails, too.” He said that he got the message that she wasn’t interested anymore, but he was hurt and surprised. “She didn’t seem like that kind of person. We’d been dating long enough that I would think she would feel that she might at least owe me an explanation. I know some guys ghost women they’ve been going out with, but I would never do that. It’s not fair to them. And what she did wasn’t fair to me.”
Many people do things we can’t understand and that we would never do. Although there can be a number of different explanations for such behavior (I’ve written about ghosting in another post), one reason is a failure of empathy. And it seems to me that we’re seeing increasing levels of this failure these days.
Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It is similar to but different from sympathy, which can mean sharing a certain feeling with someone—having the same feelings they do—or having compassion for someone’s feelings (empathy can involve sympathy, but doesn’t always).
According to Helen Riess (associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, as well as and co-founder and chief scientist of empathetics.com), empathy plays an important role in our society’s ability to function, promoting a “sharing of experiences, needs, and desires between individuals.” Our neural networks are set up to interact with the neural networks of others in order to both perceive and understand their emotions and to differentiate them from our own, which makes it possible for humans to live with one another without constantly fighting or feeling taken over by someone else.
Research has shown that empathy is not simply inborn, but can actually be taught. For example, it appears that medical training can actually diminish empathy, but on the other hand, physicians can be taught to be more empathic to their patients. Interestingly, their increased empathy also increases patient satisfaction and compliance with treatment recommendations.
It seems to me that these techniques could work with a lot of people besides physicians. As I listen to clients, colleagues, and friends discussing their concerns these days, I find myself thinking that we should be teaching empathy in school. Perhaps if we start in the early grades and keep teaching it through high school, problems of bullying, harassment, and other inappropriate behavior would diminish.
But there seems to be some discomfort even with the idea of teaching empathy to young children. One mother told me that she feared that too much empathy could lead to softness or weakness. She didn’t want her son to be “like a girl,” feeling too much for other people and therefore pushing aside his own needs and unable to pursue his own goals.
As I listened to her, I found myself wondering what kind of empathy involves not meeting your own goals, and began to think about how some women seem to sublimate their own wishes in order to give others what they want. But is that empathy? I don’t think so. I’m not sure what I would call it, but not empathy – not “understanding someone else’s feelings while also differentiating our own feelings from theirs.”
Empathy doesn’t require sublimation or burying of our own feelings. In fact, true empathy involves using our feelings to understand the feelings of someone else. We might not know exactly how they feel, but we might use our feelings to help us know something of what they are feeling.
One of the same studies that found that empathy could be taught to physicians also showed that empathic doctors tended to have patients who followed treatment recommendations and showed better treatment outcomes.
It is often easier to have empathy for someone who is like us but it is possible to learn empathy for those who are different from us. This kind of understanding, according to Reiss, can cross bridges and promote positive social behavior. Maybe we could use a little more empathy in our world.
Helen Riess. (2017) The Science of Empathy. Journal of Patient Experience. 4(2): 74–77. Published online 2017 May 9. doi: 10.1177/2374373517699267