Empathy: Encountering the Heart

When I was younger I have often heard my teachers correct someone when they would confuse empathy with sympathy. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sympathy as “feelings of concern or compassion resulting from an awareness of the suffering or sorrow of another” and empathy as “understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts.”

Oftentimes when we hear of some horrible accident on the news or read about an unfortunate tragedy online, those feelings of concern or compassion stir within our hearts, but before too long, those feelings usually and naturally dissipate and go away. It is not because we are horrible people and do not really care – we do, but at the same time perhaps we feel there is nothing we can really do about it and so we promise to say a prayer and move on. Sometimes the same thing happens when an actual human being comes up to us and shares with us some personal struggle or mental distress, but I think we are called to do something more: listening to understand and understanding to respond.

When I was in graduate school I was enrolled in an introductory psychotherapy course that required us to videotape ourselves practicing various forms of “talk therapy” with a classmate. There were two items on the rubric that stood out to me: “empathy” and “advanced empathy.” We were evaluated on the degree to which we were able to show that we had an interest in listening to the other person, and the extent to which we truly did understand and if we did, how we showed it. We showed it by our body language, our posture, our attentiveness, our responses, and more importantly, our presence. Did I slouch in the chair? Were my hands and legs crossed? Were my eyes meeting her eyes? Were my responses in validation of her feelings? Were those responses communicated in a genuine way? Did she feel that I was really there with her and that my mind was not wandering elsewhere? These things communicate so much to the other.

I have come to learn and understand that empathy is an indispensable skill, not just for mental health professionals, but for everyone. When we engage with one another do we truly desire to understand the other? Do we listen to genuinely understand or do we listen simply to say something back? Are we thinking of what to say back while the other is speaking or are we listening to and processing the words, thoughts, and feelings that is being poured out to us? In my experience, when someone comes to me and wants to talk with me, they usually are not looking for a textbook answer or a lecture on how they can improve, they simply want to be heard, to be listened to. They want to know that someone cares. And by empathizing – by our body language, posture, attentiveness, responses, and presence – we can begin to build trust and nurture meaningful relationships with others and with God.

Amidst the noise of this present age, are we willing to have that encounter with the Lord and with one another as Christ Himself had with the Samaritan woman at the well, looking into her eyes, seeing her pain and her fears, and telling her “It’s okay. I’m listening. I’m here for you.” Just as the Lord who waits patiently and listens attentively to us as we sit in the silence and pour out our hearts to Him, let us do the same for one another. Let us encounter Christ in one another. Let us listen to understand, understand to respond, and respond to love.