DEVELOPING EMPATHY

Developing Empathy illustration

If there ever was a time to start practicing empathy, now is the time. Tension from an arduous election and an ongoing global pandemic has certainly not cultivated empathy in our communities. While we know what empathy means, understanding it and practicing it are not one and the same.

Clare Stacey, PhD, associate professor of sociology, College of Arts and Sciences, has explored why empathy is easy to understand, yet difficult to practice. The reality is, empathy does not always lead to connection with others—empathy can reinforce solidarity with those who are most like us, often at the expense of those who are outside of our social milieu. Studies have shown that the more empathic a person is, the more politically partisan they are.

Despite known drawbacks, empathy is an emotion state that has the potential to benefit the giver as much as the recipient. Here are some tools to help us learn to imagine what it is like to be someone different from ourselves.

TREAT EMPATHY AS A LEARNED SKILL.

The good news is, empathy is not an innate trait or a moral disposition, but a skill that can be cultivated. Simply believing empathy is a skill rather than a fixed trait increases the likelihood that people will work harder to empathize. We can seek out tools to engage in perspective taking, arguably the core component of
empathic engagement.

An ‘empathy wall’ is when we’ve reached a point where we simply cannot understand another’s perspective. When this happens, people tend to distance themselves from their adversaries, thus deepening the divide. We can break through this wall by observing our own behavior, abandoning assumptions, practicing deep listening and asking questions to understand the other person’s actions and beliefs.

APPLY SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION.

At its core, the concept of the sociological imagination asks us to imagine the circumstances of an individual’s behavior in the context of societal structures and realities. This means to not only consider someone’s background and how that could affect their opinions, but also what’s going on in their community, the country or the world.

As a tool, the sociological imagination allows us to more readily appreciate the reality of another person, a key step in the cultivation of empathy. It manifests as a willingness to ask questions about why someone acts or believes as they do and to then seek out reliable information to answer those questions— information that can be gleaned from educators, journalists or even from those in question.

It takes work and commitment and a willingness to hold judgment in abeyance as we seek greater understanding of the context that informs a person’s life. Knowing their story will help us learn where they’re coming from, even if we don’t agree with them.

If we really want to practice empathy, not merely tout its virtues, we must embrace tools like those above. Only then can we transcend the insidious empathy walls that separate our communities.

—Clare L. Stacey, PhD, associate professor of sociology and co-director of the Healthy Communities Research Initiative. Adapted from a guest post, “Empathy is hard. What we need is (sociological) imagination,” on Contexts: Sociology for the Public blog by the American Sociological Association, Oct. 20, 2020. 

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