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August 15, 2010

The Psychology of Empathy

By Saberi Roy

Describing empathy and delineating the stages of empathy along with the theoretical and therapeutic implications


Originally Published on FutureHealth

Empathy is an essential part of emotions and is itself a specific emotion involving a feeling element of familiarity or connection and a bodily reaction of verbal or non verbal communication. Empathy in general would mean feeling what the other person is feeling and "being in the shoes of the other'. Empathy creates emotional link and involvement and could be between lovers, family members, friends, or even strangers. Empathy relates to connectedness and a sense of just knowing what another person is feeling. Some individuals are simply more empathetic than others whereas some individuals could find it hard to relate. Some questions that psychology would deal with are what creates empathy and why are some individuals more empathetic than others.

Empathy or a feeling of connectedness and being in the shoes of others, is closely related to intuition as intuition helps in the understanding and recognition of emotions in others. Even if emotions are covert and not manifested, empathy helps in identifying these emotions through intuition. Empathy is thus described as recognizing other people's emotions through intuition and is marked by a feeling of connecting to the other person.

In any leadership situation such as in political leadership and social leadership, it is necessary for leaders to feel certain degree of empathy with the other members of the group as the leaders have to feel connected to the followers to make an impact in their opinions and decisions. Teachers also have to feel empathy with the students as this creates a connectedness without which the teaching experience is meaningless both for the teachers and the students. Empathy is about motivating or influencing the other person by tapping in on his or her emotions. It is easier to influence or change people if you are keenly aware of what they are thinking or feeling as this helps to predict the possible responses. Finally we have understanding of other people only when we are able to predict their responses and empathy adds a predictive quality to the interaction.

Stages of Empathy

It could be said that empathy begins with intuition and ends with prediction is which one person is able to predict the emotional responses of the other. The stages of empathy are thus given as:

1. Intuition

2. Connection

3. Consideration

4. Prediction

5. Motivation

The first stage of intuition involves one person naturally intuitive towards the other as with intuition of the other's person's emotions and feelings or thought processes, the next stage of empathy or a feeling of connectedness is established. The connection between two people naturally leads to a feeling of mutual consideration and the next stage of predicting each other's responses. In some cases empathy could be mutual although in many cases as in a relationship between a therapist and her patient, the empathy could be one sided. After the connection is established and there is a deep sense of consideration for the other's feelings, and an understanding as to why the person is feeling in a particular way, one person who empathizes with the other is able to move to the next stage of predicting the emotional responses. Understanding the response patterns in other people is an essential part of connecting and relating to them closely and would definitely suggest the ability of being in the shoes of the other. The last stage of empathy deals with the more directional aspect as in the case of teacher or therapist there is a need to motivate or influence the other person following an empathetic connection. In fact the empathy may have been established to influence the other person to attain some goals or reach some targets. So influencing and motivating the other person is an integral part of empathy and is a tacit goal of empathetic relations.

Apart from the five stages of empathy discussed, empathy could involve subsequent feelings of friendship, love, rapport, admiration, dependence and this would depend on whether the empathy is between a teacher and a student, a therapist and a patient, a leader and his followers or between lovers or friends.

From a psychological point of view, empathy would involve fulfilling the safety and security needs of other individuals and also their love and belongingness needs. Empathy needs are thus somewhere in between the love-attachment-belongingness (psychological) needs of individuals and the safety-security needs of individuals and the need for empathy exists in every individual and is manifested in both the forms of giving and receiving empathy.

Individuals fulfil their love and belongingness needs by relating to others and empathy uses love and belongingness to provide safety and security. Thus the purpose of empathy as explained with Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory is to make the other person happy by providing a sense of security and lending support as is the goal of empathy could mean a positive influence of one person on the other. Empathy highly enhances social interaction as it adds elements of familiarity, connectedness and consideration between people and help to instil and maintain human values.

Theory and Therapy

Apart from the Maslow's basic needs theory which would identify empathy as a love and safety need, any psychotherapeutic framework could successfully utilize the concept of empathy and develop a therapeutic model based on affective interaction between therapist and client. In fact any client centred therapy requires empathetic connection between the client and the therapist and development of an Affective Therapeutic System based on the Intuition-Connection-Consideration-Prediction-Motivation (ICCPM) model of empathy could be an effective method of therapy in which different stages of empathy are identified and evoked between the client and the therapist to reach the final goal of mutual understanding.

For example if a client suffers from depression, the Affective Therapeutic Framework can use the ICCPM model to first emphasize on developing intuitive interaction between the client and the therapist. This is possible after a background or history of the client's illness or psychological condition is obtained by the therapist. The intuitive stage in which the client and therapist develops a subconscious bond is followed by a sense of connectedness when the client begins to open up to the client and communication becomes easy. The third stage of consideration follows as both client and therapist decide to cooperate on a specific goal and begins to understand each other's language. The fourth stage of therapeutic interaction would be based on both the client and therapist being able to predict reactions and responses and empathetically connect to each other's opinions. The last stage of therapy deals with decision making and evaluation to see whether the motivational levels of the client have been improved and whether the therapist has been an influential factor in changing the behaviour or thought process of the client.

Submitters Bio:
Saberi Roy is a writer/poet/analyst/political commentator/psychologist and writes on science, arts, psychology, religions, politics and philosophy. She has Masters degrees in Philosophy (MA), in Psychology (MSc) and in Consciousness Studies with QM (MS). She contributes to several US, UK and European journals on a regular basis as a columnist and analyst and is also writing an ongoing series in Psychology to provide new insights into human thinking. These psychology essays are available free on the net and archived on the Uni of Iowa digital archives. Her poetry and psychology articles are available in book formats and she also edits a scientific-spiritual magazine. Saberi also works with Argentina based journal(Ea) as their Singapore-Hong Kong-Malaysia correspondent. She is also actively involved and interested in futurist thinking, science, technology and communication and development of integrated knowledge systems and contributes on trends analysis with a UK based think tank (Shaping Tomorrow).