Empathy looking at others through their eyes | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 29, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 29, 2018

Empathy looking at others through their eyes

The word empathy entered the English dictionary in 1909 when the British psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German word einfühlung. He defined empathy as “feeling into”. Titchener was working with the German psychologist Wilhem Wundt at Leipzig University. Experimental psychology was emerging as a new branch that studied how people see their world and how they respond to it.

It takes time for knowledge at the frontier to enter the popular domain. The concept of empathy is no exception. Although philosophers have been discussing empathy for ages, it was only in the 1990s that Daniel Goleman formalised and popularised empathy. Today empathy is seriously studied in economics and business schools throughout the world.

The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as: “the ability to understand and share the feeling of others”. These feelings don't necessarily have to be that of sympathy which means feeling pity and sorrow about somebody's misfortune. The feeling of somebody can be one of joy, sorrow, melancholy, anger, happiness, depression and what not. Empathy encourages us to see and feel another person's feelings through their own eyes and their own perspective. Daniel Goleman identified three kinds of empathy that are needed to make better decisions in life and live in a social setting. Ask two simple questions. What happens if empathy is present? What happens if empathy is not present?

Cognitive Empathy: This is the ability to understand another person's perspective or mental state. When we try to understand another person's feelings through their own eyes, we are in a better position to make a decision and respond accordingly. The problem lies in the answer to “how”. A response could be good or bad. When the response is good, you feel the person's situation. You express solidarity with them. This would be selfless behaviour. A bad response would be that we understand the person's situation and try to manipulate or benefit from it. Look at the following scenario in two different settings.

One of your friends approaches you for some money as a loan. He's facing difficulty. You ask him about his problems and try to understand his situation. Unfortunately, you can't help. Your friend goes to another friend. That friend also tries to understand the situation. He also expresses his solidarity, but offers a loan at an interest, trying to manipulate and benefit from the situation.

Emotional Empathy: This is the ability to respond to another person's mental state with an appropriate emotion. If you don't have emotional empathy, even if you understand another person's situation (cognitive empathy) in their own perspective, you wouldn't mind taking advantage to benefit yourself. If you have emotional empathy, think about situations when you felt better later on by not giving a rude response to somebody that could have hurt them. Alternatively, think how you felt when somebody was making fun of your vulnerable situation that you weren't willing to share with others.

Empathetic Concern: This is sympathy and compassion in response to another person's suffering. When I see you in distress, I try to understand your feelings through your own eyes and I want to help you spontaneously. I express my cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. I also show you my ability in lending a hand in compassion. This last stage of empathy, as Daniel Goleman defines, is critical to develop bonds among people. The worst response would be, I understand your situation, but why should I care? Think about seeing an elderly person or a mother with her child standing in the bus. You and others didn't notice or didn't bother to notice.

We're all social animals who live and interact in social settings. Even islands have their small communities and social life. If you fail to appreciate and respond to another person's feelings, in turn you can't expect others to reciprocate to your own feelings; whether those are feelings of joy or feelings of sorrow. If you try to understand a person's feelings, in a social-setting you will be better able to make a decision. You will also feel happy and make others feel happy when you appreciate the Swedish proverb: “A shared joy is double joy. A shared sorrow is half a sorrow”. The world would be a much better place with more empathetic people.


Asrar Chowdhury observes and learns from young minds in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: asrarul@juniv.edu or asrarul@gmail.com

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