Empathy is a Means to an End

04/24/2017 11:03 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2017

Distinguishing empathy from empathizing helps us become better scientists of empathy.

In part 1 of this series, I defined empathy as follows:

Empathy is a word invented to explain what makes it possible for us to move from feeling as if we’re disconnected or at odds with an “other” to feeling as if we’re connected or at one with them. The feeling may last a brief moment or a prolonged duration of time and the “other” may be either a piece of artwork or another person.

Please stay tuned, as this definition will continue to evolve as the series unfolds.

To be clear, I did not define the word to claim authority over it. “Then why did you do it?” You may ask.

First of all, I did it to reduce misunderstandings. In Chinese, the word for “name(名)” is made of two characters 夕 and 口. The top character depicts the moon(夕) and connotes “darkness.” The lower character depicts a mouth(口) and means “to make a sound." Here's one interpretation of the word. When it gets dark outside, you have to say your name out loud so others can know who you are. The implication being that when it’s bright outside and we can see each other, a name is no longer needed. I felt the same way about defining empathy. Given that I’m in the dark on how you define the word “empathy,”[1] I wanted to say mine out loud so you know what I am talking about.

More importantly, I wanted to make a distinction between an experience and a means to the experience. I wanted to distinguish between empathizing, which is experiencing connection or oneness with an “other,” and empathy, which is a means to having such an experience.

Why make such a distinction?” You may ask.

We can know for ourselves when we are experiencing a sense of connection or oneness with an “other.” We can also know when we are not. In other words, an experience is something for which we can acquire empirical evidence. At the same time, such empirical evidence says nothing about what made such an experience possible. Empathy fills this gap by standing in as the what. Of course, a word isn’t the real means for having such an experience. It is a label for the means for having such an experience. So what we have in addition to empathy is many hypotheses.

For example, you may have had trouble experiencing connection or oneness with someone who said or did something that, to you, seemed stupid. But after you understood their situation, their needs, and the thought process they used to navigate their situation and fulfill their needs, you may have been able to experience connection or oneness with them. Based on this observation, you may come up with a hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to see things from that other person’s perspective.” This is one hypothesis often associated with empathy.

On the other hand, you may have also had an experience where you felt connected or at one with someone, yet you did not see anything from their perspective. Instead, it was something about the way they listened to you that helped you feel connected or at one with them. Based on this observation, you may come up with another hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to be listened to by them in a particular way.” This is another hypothesis often associated with empathy.

How about another one? You may have taken a mime class, where you felt connected or at one with another person while mirroring their behavior. Here, there was no seeing from their perspective or even being listened to in a particular way. Based on this observation, you may come up with yet another hypothesis that says “To move from not feeling connection or oneness with an other to feeling so, we need to mimic their behavior.” This is also a hypothesis often associated with empathy.

The point I want to make is that the list goes on.

In fact, I invite you to come up with as many hypotheses as you’d like. I also invite you to test them in different situations and discuss your findings with others doing the same thing. You may learn that there are different ways to hypothesize about the observations you’ve made.

This is why I find the distinction between empathy and empathizing valuable.

With the distinction between empathy and empathizing in place, we no longer have to take other people’s opinion on what empathy is as the gospel. We can think and decide for ourselves through experiments. As physicist Richard Feynman once said “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

But that’s not even all of it.

Using the distinction as a common framework, we can also work together to accumulate a body of knowledge on what makes it possible for each of us to go from not feeling connected or at one with an other to feeling so.

Do you not find that valuable?

Please wait for Part 3.

Discuss this further on on Facebook.

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[1] Batson, Daniel. “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related But Distinct Phenomena.” In The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Edited by Jean Decety and William John Ickes. Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 2009. 3–15. 4.

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