What is it to be empathic?



Empathy is a primal level of interpersonal interaction whereby signals from one person are picked up by another. These may (or may not) become actualised as feelings, and/or thoughts, and/or behaviours.

As readers point out, features of this basic interpersonal signal-detection are authenticity, unthought/unfelt, somatic.

Empathy, then, is but the raw material for being empathic.

What is it to be empathic?
The word ‘empathy’ is often often used in common parlance as a shorthand for one of two types of things:

1. Feelings and/or thoughts which (it is assumed) are similar to those of another person (e.g. “I feel sad, perhaps it’s because he feels sad”).

2. Behaviours intended to help the other through correct identification of how things are for the other (e.g. because I believe that he is sad I offer a kind word).

As cumbersome and potentially confusing as it may be, I want to keep these distinct:

empathy as apperception
empathic internal awareness
empathic act

(The former I have been dealing with for a while now and attempt to capture in the metaphor of the internal ham operator.)

Empathic internal awareness
When a signal from the other is detected it can be elaborated into a sensation and then a feeling, or into an awareness and then a thought. One can ping (to use swivelchair’s word) between these to build a complex emotional conception. And one might act upon it.

While this internal response can become increasingly sophisticated, I think that a rather minimal internal awareness can lead to an empathic act.

Empathic act
An empathic behaviour has the following elements:
1. a signal from the other is detected
2. a response is proffered to demonstrate shared experience
3. the response is experienced by the other as right.

I will argue that if any of these is missing it is pseudo-empathy which might well be experienced as unempathic.

Why is this nitpicking necessary?
I trust that it is clear how the collapsing of meanings makes it impossible to follow a statement like this: The psychopath felt no emapthy as he used his empathic detection of another’s signals to behave unempathically in order to hurt the other.

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Photo: Briton Riviere: Sympathy, originally uploaded by freeparking

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9 Responses

  1. I think it probably needs more elaboration. The definition could fit lots of other behaviour I think.

    The distinct element in that definition reduces the specifically empathic to the other person feeling that it is right. My feeling is that there needs to be some elaboration about step 2.

    Or, you may mean empathy to be understood very broadly eg. a good pass in football.

    But I still think the above definition fits for skilful manipulation rather than empathy.

    I’m not sure I’d be game to try and take on defining empathy. So, I’m glad you have and think the result should be very helpful. So, thanks for taking it on.

  2. evan – Thanks for that. Still trying to keep the definition as condensed as possible, I’ve added four words to #2. How’s that?

  3. You say:

    “I trust that it is clear how the collapsing of meanings makes it impossible to follow a statement like this: The psychopath felt no emapthy as he used his empathic detection of another’s signals to behave unempathically in order to hurt the other.”

    I’m not aware that it is generally understood or accepted that a
    psychopath follows this methodology in interactions with others. As I understand it a psychopath does not reason in this way in order to consciously hurt another. In the case of the psychopath there is no ham radio or operator. They just calculate in order to get what they want. The feelings of another simply don’t factor into the equation.

  4. joe – Good to have you aboard. What you identify is a – perhaps contentious – view that the psychopath is empathic, despite the common assumption. I’ve been building this case over a couple of weeks by trying to get to the bottom of what empathy is.

    My query is, if the psychopath lacks empathy, how is he such a good con man. Surely for one to con another one needs to be able to understand the other’s thoughts and feelings?

    Take autistic people as a counter example – they cannot appreciate the mind of another and as a consequence cannot lie.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  5. Perhaps they understand but act differently.

    Empathy then is not only understanding but the act as well.

  6. evan – I find that I’ve talked myse;f into insisting on three things: empathic apperception, empathic gesture, empathic experience of the other. These don’t necessary go together (see the psychopath), but an empathic act proper must involve all three.

  7. First – love the graphic here.

    Empathic, when talked about in behavior (to my way of thinking) is more narrowly construed. Its almost like clairsentience in that you pick up what the other person is feeling. Correct?

  8. barbara – That seems right to me. What do you think of my suggestion that the psychopath can do the immediate intuitive part of empathy; he just doesn’t/can’t do the compassionate part?

  9. “What is it to be empathic? The Top Two Inches” was a wonderful article, can not
    help but wait to browse more of ur blogs. Time to squander a
    bit of time online haha. Thank you ,Hellen

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