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Empathy is not approval

It's an itellectual understanding of another person's feelings

We hear all the time about how we should be more empathic towards other people. That is not easy to do but we make it harder by misunderstanding what empathy is. We confuse empathy with kindness and compassion.

Empathy has nothing to do with our own feelings. It is actually an intellectual understanding of what someone else is feeling.

To be truly emphatic means that we separate our own feelings from the situation so that we can figure out what the other person is feeling.

This is difficult to do because we get the relationship between feelings and facts exactly backwards. We think that we see a set of facts and that generates a feeling in us.

That’s not the way feelings and facts work. Feelings don’t arise from facts, they arise from deep-seated instincts combined with our experiences.

Feelings happen first, out of our conscious control, then we find the facts that justify those feelings. When we encounter a fact that doesn’t support that feeling, we automatically and unconsciously decide that fact cannot be true.

We think we draw conclusions from a sober analysis of all the available facts but what we are really doing is justifying decisions by cherry picking which facts we believe. If we end up being correct about a particular fact that supports our emotional decision that is entirely by accident.

That’s what we all do. And recognizing this is the key to actually having empathy.

Empathy is really about recognizing the feeling that another person has and then imagining what decisions we would take if we had that same feeling. Whether we agree with that feeling ourselves is irrelevant.

The biggest hurdle to this arises from that mistaken belief that feelings come as a result of facts: because we think we are driven by facts we think that any conclusion we make is the only objective conclusion.

We do not view our judgement as a subjective individual point of view, rather we see it as the inevitable conclusion any reasonable thinking person should draw from a logical analysis of the facts.

This means that when we are trying to understand someone else, we are assuming that they are following that same logical analysis that we think we are. And so we think that understanding someone means drawing the same conclusions that they are drawing based on the facts.

We think that empathy is about agreeing with what the other person thinks.

A former FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, said it best “Empathy is not the truth, it is not reality, it’s the other side’s point of view” -

This is where we get hung up. If we take that erroneous relationship between feelings and facts as being accurate then it is actually impossible for us to understand someone else’s point of view. Literally impossible.

If we think that we all see the same facts and then draw a conclusion from those facts, it is hard to see how someone can draw a different conclusion from the same facts. Doing so literally seems irrational and crazy to us.

The only explanation is that the other person must be stupid or inherently bad. In either case we can’t find any common ground because clearly we are neither stupid nor bad. The inevitable result of this is that we demonize our cultural and/or political opponents as less than us.

But if by examining ourselves, by building our self-awareness, we realize that we have these emotional responses and only believe the facts that support those responses, we can then understand our friends and enemies.

Instead of wondering how they can possibly come to the conclusion that they did given the available facts, we imagine what they are feeling and then see how that colors their view of the facts. How it takes them down a predictable path by believing only things that support that view point.

We don’t have to agree or even accept that the other person’s fear is justifiable because that is the wrong question. Fear isn’t something that you can control.

You can face the things that you fear and in that way reduce it but in the moment when you have that feeling of panic, you have reverted back to your animal nature and there is no amount of rational logic that can fight that.

I am terrified of cockroaches. Just full on panic when I see one. There is no amount of facts that you can bring to bear to argue me away from that because it wasn’t a logical argument that I used to get there in the first place.

Trying to rationalize away fear is bringing a knife to a gunfight. But developing the self-awareness to realize how we are driven by fear will open ourselves up to understand how other people are driven by fear.

It will help us be more empathic. And being more empathic will make us more effective.