The Power of Empathy

by Chandrika R Krishnan

“Never criticise a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins,” is an old (Red) Indian proverb. Today in the customer care industry, we expect employees to be extremely empathetic in their dealings. They are taught to spout phrases such as, “I can understand what you feel…”. It is not always easy to place oneself in another’s shoe. More often than not, it comes off as an empty sort of phrase.

What is empathy? It is, in the words of Carl Rogers, “to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it.”

My friend lost her octogenarian father a couple of years back. She almost cried herself sick. I failed to understand what she was feeling though I was there for her. I spouted inanities such as, life has to end sometime, he did not suffer…. I felt that he had lived a good, full life.

Life came full circle, and I lost my father. He died and a part of me died along with him. I then understood what it was to lose a parent. I mourned his death.

Can empathy be taught? More importantly, can it be learnt?

As human beings, we love to give our own advice that comes from our own experience. We want to explain our own feelings. As Marshall Rosenberg, the author, gently and pithily advised, “Empathy… calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.”

Where did empathy come from? As a word, empathy has a history of just about 140 years. In the year 1873, a German philosopher was the first to use the word “Einfühlung”, to explain how we “feel into”.

Carl Rogers, the American psychologist on whose works is based much of our modern understanding on empathy, wrote Empathic – An Unappreciated Way of Being. In that, he proposed that empathy is a process, rather than a state.

In the brain

Professor V.S Ramachandran, the neuroscientist whose TED talks on “Mirror Neurons” attracts phenomenal viewership, says: “…If I really and truly empathise with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathise with your pain — saying in effect that the person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.”

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Photo by Hugues de BUYER-MIMEURE


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