Friday, February 26, 2010

Making Empathy Concrete

One of my biggest passions is finding ways to make what I do teachable, especially in the area of empathic presence. It’s not only a passion, but a necessity. Our times, more than ever, require empathy to become widely accessible to people. I want to find a way to replicate what I do, to build capacity for the work necessary to create a world that works for all. Could this blog be a way to do that?

Recently, talk of empathy is increasing. But the how of empathy is still missing. People are hungry for this knowledge, and yet it’s so elusive. How can one teach about empathic presence? Can empathy really be broken down and learned? I want to say: YES!  Empathy is core to what makes us human. When we bring together our mind, heart, body, and imagination; when we can focus all our attention and become a witness to another’s humanity, we enter the empathic space, and in some small measure life changes. How can we cultivate this capacity?

If, like me, words and thoughts are your primary entryway into another person’s experience, reach beyond intellectual understanding for the human warmth we all wish for when we want to be heard. Let yourself feel and experience and resonate with the other’s experience, and allow that feeling inside you to affect your tone of voice, bring softness to your being, and convey your care and humanity to the person speaking.  

If your primary access is a felt sense of resonance, an experience of being at one with another person, complement it with putting your heart and mind on the other person. Empathic presence is about being with the other person’s experience, so that they can have the benefit of your presence instead of your emotional identification with their experience. Imagine what it’s like for them. Put words to what you discover, and share with the other person. Without your words, how would they know you understood?  

If you can imagine easily, maintain your focus by thinking about the other person and staying clearly with the essence instead of the details of the storyline. Follow the thread of meaning of the person speaking instead of your curiosity. Bring your mind to bear on this focus, listen carefully to the words. Which ones have the most emotional charge? Those usually hold clues to what’s going on for the person speaking. Is the person expressing judgments, frustrations with what is not happening, fear of what might happen? Focus your mind and attention on what they want. What may be leading them to speak to you right now?

If you have strong feelings about what the person is saying, you may be tempted to try to fix the situation, or reassure the person. Instead, it takes focus and determination to remember that your presence is the biggest gift you can give another, regardless of what the issue at hand is.

When we master the art and craft of empathic presence, we become laser-like. We can hear precisely what is wanted in each moment; we find words that convey our understanding and care and can touch another’s heart; and we remain relaxed in the face of strong emotions knowing we don’t have to do anything about them. Then we can discover that empathic presence is also a gift to us: the gift of being nourished by the trust of another, by witnessing pure, distilled, raw humanity in its unmistakable beauty.


  1. For me presence with another starts with my ability to be present with myself. If I can be there and hold that space for more than a moment, I will be able to be present with another--to be empathic.

    So to strive to be empathic can be dangerous and take me away from myself--can be, I say--if I come at it from any way other than through my own effort at wholeness and self-integration.

    To teach empathy, then--from my way of looking at it--is to teach self knowledge and self love. The way to self-knowledge goes through whatever personal "inferno" we carry within ourselves, learning as we go, to embrace, to love (which is to say, to integrate)the darkest parts of ourselves and the lightest parts of ourselves and all the parts in between. When we can do that, we know we are no different from another and have no need to project either our darkness or our light on to another.

    There may be no pedagogy of empathy other than living an empathic life, ourselves, as best as we are able.

  2. I think there is another way to be emphatic - a simple touch. I agree that words are important, but our society has forgotten the importance of human contact (as I write this on a computer, and you have no idea who I am). Along with presence as gift, a simple gesture, when possible, is vital to being with that gift. Thank you for these beautiful words, and I look forward to reading more.

  3. Enjoyed this post Miki- greetings from Israel!My belief that the skill of listening emphatically is a much needed one, and can be taught! With Love