If there is an overlap or blurriness of people’s subjectivities, empathy is what call the ability to tell what another is experiencing. We say, “He gets me,” “She understood,” “I know what that’s like”. We speak of stepping into another’s shoes, of seeing the world through their eyes.
When empathy fails we say, “You don’t understand what it’s like,” or “She doesn’t get me.”
Empathy implies that person A experiences something which person B then experiences too (be it through identification, mirror neurons, or intuition – perhaps these are the same thing). It is as if person A gives off something which person B detects.
Human communication, in other words, is more than the literal content of what one person says to another. Indeed, that level of interchange, some would say, is less about communication and more about hiding and manipulating. Here’s Harold Pinter:
The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.
Others don’t go as far. They simply concede that the way we talk to one another does not tell the whole story.
The more wary one is of the limits – or worse – of regular ‘communication,’ the more credence one is likely to give to the veracity of empathic knowing.
We nod when someone says, “He says he’s fine, but I’m worried about him.” Perhaps she has picked up on something, we think. This ‘picking up on something’ comes about through empathic attunement. in this respect people are like tuning forks: emit something at a particular frequency and I (may) vibrate accordingly.
Say a baby vibrates with the frequency of, say, desperate tiredness and I understand that as anger or hunger, we are out of attunement, right? I have not empathised with the baby’s experience. (To use psychological terms – instead of identifyingwith I have projected-onto.)
So, is empathy necessarily accurate?
Having just said that the adult/baby example is unempathic misalignment, it might seem that I’m contradicting myself when I say that one person’s internal response does not in fact have to be correct for it to properly be described as empathy.
Take this a little example from the above article on Pinter. John Lahr writes:
Once, just before a work session, my wife and our four-year-old son, Chris sat at Reisz’s kitchen with Pinter as he held forth in his commanding manner. When Pinter left the room, Chris turned to us and asked, “Is he a policeman?” “No,” his mother said. “He’s a very good writer.” [See below for the boy’s delightful follow-up question.]
Pinter was not, and never has been, a policeman. Indeed his anti-conformist bias makes him one of the least likely people to ever become a policeman! And yet, by my lights, Chris exhibited an exquisite empathic attunement with the great man.
Something about Pinter’s commanding way and the others’ deference captured the essence of policemanlikeness. It could be that with that one incorrect assumption Chris had seen deeper into Pinter than either he or his colleagues could. (This might not be right re Pinter, but you can see that this kind of thing could be so.)
So, in one sense a response to another does not have to be accurate to be empathy, in another it does. Empathic attunement involves getting at something psychologically right, even if factually wrong.
(I leave aside the vexed question of how one might judge ‘psychological rightness’ – that’s an empirical and/or epitemological question. For the purposes of building a shared definition this expression will have to do.)
Nor does empathy have to be the entire story. Even if Chris was right – there is something of the policeman about Pinter, or rather what Pinter and the quality of policemanlike share is an unchallengable authority – this is not all there is to Pinter. Other tuning forks will resonate to other of his notes.
To summarise: empathy is the psychologically accurate picking up of something of another’s experience.
(I would say that perfectly accurate empathy is impossible – which is not the same thing as saying either that empathy is impossible or that all responses can be called empathic.)
What say you, reader?
Next time: Are there different levels of empathy?
“Is he a policeman?” “No,” his mother said. “He’s a very good writer.” “Can he make a ‘W’?” Chris asked.