Empathy may be defined as the identification with the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of another person. It sounds like something people experience every day, but it is more an exception than the rule. If empathy was the rule, the norm, the world would be a much different place. Empathy runs counter to the human need for people to differentiate themselves from other people. It runs counter to the need for groups to differentiate themselves from other groups. It is the proverbial act of putting oneself in the shoes of another person. Psychotherapists often label the active process of this identification as empathic listening.
The meaning of empathy is not synonymous with sympathy. Sympathy is to be in agreement with the thoughts and feelings of another; even to share similar thoughts and feelings as the other person. This is not the goal of most psychotherapeutic schools, since it may bring a loss of objectivity. For example, a depressed person may engage in many thoughts and beliefs that enable the depression to flourish. A sympathetic psychologist may become lost in the many instances of bad luck or even tragedy that befall the person. Sympathy will render the psychologist blind to the maladaptive aspects of the patient’s behavior, since they are actively and uncritically ingesting the depression of their patient. Similarly, an anxious patient may experience many negative outcomes as a consequence of their anxiety. A psychologist that chronically feels sorry for their anxiety is certainly sympathetic, and this may serve to validate the patient’s perceptions, but it is unlikely to alleviate their anxiety in a meaningful fashion.
The act of identification with the patient’s feelings and thoughts will often produce an emotional or intellectual reaction in the psychologist. A true professional has performed enough personal discovery to understand what their reaction signifies. For example, many psychologists comment that they become uncomfortable with borderline personality disorder patients. A well-trained psychologist is aware of their emotional triggers in order to use this information in the service of their patient. Perhaps the disassociation between the patient’s facial expression(s) and speech reminds the psychologist of their mother. To become sympathetic to this symptom, or worse enraged, will occur if the psychologist lacks the personal knowledge to understand the historical nature of their reaction. An empathetic listener identifies with the borderline patient’s thoughts and feelings, but does not lose the critical awareness of their own reactions. It is the process of understanding and entering into the patient’s thoughts and feelings without falling into a pit of subjectivity.
Empathic listening is less a trait possessed by gifted people than a skill that is learned in a rigorous fashion. Training to become a psychologist requires many hours of clinical supervision. Students bring in tapes of psychotherapy sessions and the professors rake the students over the coals of their psychopathology. It is not uncommon for many students to cry or become angry at the professor’s comments, since they may strike at the heart of what makes us a person. No one likes to hear someone they respect say, “Why the hell did you say that?” It is even more threatening when the professor gives a short description of the student’s pathology, and how their mistake will derail the psychotherapy. It is a highly uncomfortable and valuable process when performed diligently. It more comfortable and less useful if the professor seeks to spare the student’s feelings-to sympathize with their plight. Empathic listening is a skill that every competent psychologist must acquire. Empathic listening is a major factor that differentiates psychotherapy from ordinary conversation. As a general rule, friends are sympathetic and shrinks are empathetic.