Five Myths about Empathy

by Christine Sine

by Lynne Baab

Painting: Qualicum Beach Vancouver Island 2004 by Dave Baab

In post-pandemic times, we are increasingly aware of isolation and loneliness. You may have noticed a lot of press recently about many aspects of friendships. Some articles highlight the profound value of one specific relational skill, empathy. The word “empathy” is not used in the Bible, but the meaning of empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — resonates strongly with biblical values. 

In the Old Testament, God is described as having compassion more than a dozen times, and in the Gospels, Jesus is said to feel compassion six times. Compassion and empathy have similar etymological roots and meanings. Compassion centers on sharing the pain of others, while empathy can enable us to feel another person’s joy as well as sorrow. 

This article discusses myths about empathy with the goal of lightening pressure to empathize perfectly. Understanding these myths can help us develop do-able listening skills so we can enter into the lives of people we love. You may want to think about how these myths relate to compassion as well.

Myth No. 1 Empathy mainly involves emotions.

A definition of empathy from a communication textbook stresses that when we empathize, we make a choice to engage our brains: “Empathy is the cognitive process of identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” [1] We choose to pay attention to other people’s words, tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions to learn what they are feeling and thinking. We imagine ourselves in their place. 

These cognitive processes give us information that allows us to experience a part of what others are feeling and thinking—sadness, grief, anger, joy, and any other emotion a person can feel. These emotions can trigger a physical response that accompanies empathy, such as the gut punch of tragedy or the tight throat of anger. Empathy is cognitive, emotional, and sometimes physical, involving our whole bodies.

Myth No. 2 Empathic listening is always the best listening.

Because empathy involves our whole bodies, using empathy is tiring. It requires intense concentration. People who are committed to empathy may need encouragement in some settings to let go of empathy. Objective listening often works best when dealing with tasks or details. 

Imagine that I am at my neighbors’ house learning about their plants and cats so I can take care of them while the neighbors are on vacation. In that setting, I can listen to details about the watering can and cat food. I don’t need to be empathetic about the stresses of their trip planning, although I may desire to do that another time. 

A significant skill related to empathy is discernment about when it is important. We can pray for God’s wisdom and perception about how to choose between objective or empathetic listening. 

Myth No. 3 We are either empathetic or we’re not.

Empathy can be learned. Because empathy begins with a cognitive process, we can work on it. The definition I mentioned above continues, “When we empathize, we are attempting to understand and/or experience what another person understands and/or experiences.” [2] We make attempts. We try to watch for cues from the other person. We try to respond with a nod, a word, or a comment that reflects back what we think they’re feeling. We may ask a follow-up question. 

Sometimes we do a good job, and other times we don’t. Every good listener I know tries to grow in their ability to empathize. We can ask for God’s help to perceive moments where we have empathized well. We can ask for the Holy Spirit’s guidance to learn from our less successful moments. We can pray for empowerment to grow in sharing the feelings of people we care about. 

Myth No. 4 Empathy focuses entirely on the other person.

Our own spinning thoughts are the biggest challenge when empathizing: Perhaps I feel uncomfortable with my friend’s overwhelming sadness and am wondering how I can shift their conversation to something positive. Or I’m thinking that I want to give some advice right now. Or, wow, that anger I’m hearing is scary. Maybe I should change the subject. This “inner noise” we experience when listening can also include things like our own to-do list, concerns about a frustrating relative, or a conflict at work.

The many forms of “inner noise” during conversations are normal. Some of them are a sign of our brain’s creativity. Others are evidence that we need to grow in our comfort with sadness, anger, and other emotions that we often view as negative. To empathize, we need to identify our own thoughts, let them go, and return our attention over and over to the other person. Then we can continue to watch for signs of what they are feeling and experiencing. Listening experts refer to this as “double listening” — focusing both on our conversation partner and our own thoughts and feelings.

Christians who study listening often advocate for another form of double listening — observing to the other person’s words and non-verbal communication while also listening to God for guidance for this specific conversation. For Christians, then, we might talk about triple listening. We pay attention to the other person, our own emotions and thoughts, and the whisper of the Holy Spirit guiding us as we converse. 

Myth No. 5 • Empathy is always good for the person we’re talking with.

I recently gave a seminar on empathy at my church. Afterward, a mom of three kids came up to chat. She said she has to work on reducing empathy sometimes because her kids need to experience their own emotions without her engagement in them. She said that sometimes, the hugeness of her own emotions about her kids’ experiences moves the center of the conversation away from the kids to her response. She doesn’t want that, so she tries to discern when empathy is appropriate and when it isn’t. 

Her story again illustrates one big challenge related to empathy—discerning when to listen with an objective stance and when to engage in the challenging and rewarding work of listening with empathy. Because God is characterized by compassion, we can ask for guidance about every aspect of empathy. 

[1] and [2] Kathleen S. Verderber and Rudolph F. Verderber, Inter-Act: Interpersonal Communication Concepts, Skills and Contexts, 10th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 211.

Breath Prayer Cards

We are all born knowing how to breathe, but often need to be taught how to breathe properly. Deep abdominal breathing for five minutes several ties a day where we consciously fill our lungs can reduce stress, calm our minds and help us center on the loving presence of God. Each breath that we take is a breathing in of the life of God.

Uniquely designed with a breath word and prayer, each card will help lead you into a powerful meditation. Set of 12 prayers designed by Hilary Horn, text and photographs by Christine Sine.

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