A few months ago, my sister Arnina, who lives and teaches Nonviolent Communication in Israel (meitarim.co.il), was telling me about someone who had just taken an action that was very painful for her. Part of the pain, as is almost always the case in such situations, was caused by the familiar enigma: how could anyone do this? Then she said something that has stayed with me ever since: “I can explain his behavior, but I don’t understand it.” I have quoted her often, because this simple sentence captures, for me, the profound and slippery distinction between empathy and analysis. However compassionate our analysis might be, it remains external. We see from the outside. If we explain another’s behavior through knowing or imagining their personal history, or we do so by imagining what human needs could lead to the behavior we struggle to understand, we maintain some distance from their own lived experience. We don’t fill in the gap between the history and the present, or between the need and the particular choice of strategy to meet that need.
I want to hear others through the lens of the meaning their actions have for them rather than through the effect their actions have on me. The very root of empathy resides in this fundamental shift. Whenever someone’s actions are at odds with our own needs, most of us, most of the time, do the latter. In that way, we keep our attention on ourselves rather than on the other person. We cannot be in empathy when we are focused on how things affect us.