Ordinary Empathy- Is It Truly Ordinary?


“A person’s behavior goes right, if it doesn’t go wrong in one of the ways it can go wrong.” Peter Ossorio, Place, 1998.

Behavior going right requires no explanation. Successful behavior is ordinary. Empathy is ordinary in the same way.

Empathy is a fundamental feature of emotional competence. In the average expected, good enough maturation, people naturally acquire empathic skills as they interact with others, but some circumstances and manners of parenting are more conducive to fostering empathy than others.We don’t always need to be empathic, but when a situation calls for mutual understanding, a lack of empathy requires explanation. Under normal circumstances, people make sense to each other, and when they don’t, we expect people to be able to figure out why.

Without the right degree of empathy, ordinary social interaction would be hard. Negotiation would be difficult. Moral discourse would be impossible. Improvisational play would be stilted, at best.

Empathic skill is a standing condition of normal personality, a competence required for engaging in social practices if those practices are to have the character of “flow”, attunement, harmony, or the dance-like features of improvisational play. Intimacy requires empathy. Love, work and play are based on this shared competence.When there isn’t sufficient empathic skill there’s pathology. Such deficits interfere with the ability to engage in certain vital relationships, especially where compassion and intimacy are required.

Empathy is the core of our intimate acts. Intimacy is understood as empathy plus a willingness to share vulnerability. In an intimate act, we let someone else see our most vulnerable features. Intimacy involves the risk and the hope that our vulnerability will be treated carefully and kindly.

Empathic skill employed in the service of sadism, hostility, or coercive manipulation is a miscarriage of empathy, an exploitation of the accurate recognition of another person. It is not empathy when the goal of the understanding is exploitation or harm. This is something else entirely.

Two “operational” definitions: 1. We experience someone as empathic when they demonstrate that they appreciate our intentions and the significance of our actions in a manner that respects our toleration for being known. 2. Empathic action requires an appreciation of what a person intends through recognizing their reasons for action, what they know about their relevant circumstances, what skill or competence they have relevant to what they are trying to do, and the significance of this performance to them. Empathic action involves acknowledging this without anyone feeling overwhelmed or violated.

The second definition provides a parametric analysis of empathy, an operational definition and a serviceable tool for empathy training, psychotherapy, and supervision. The parameters that the empathic actor attends implicitly or mindfully are the other’s reasons for action (W), their knowledge of their circumstances (K), their self recognized skills to achieve what they want in the relevant circumstances (KH), and the significance of success or failure in accomplishing the desired outcome (S). The empathic actor implicitly or mindfully recognizes the specific content of these parameters and is careful to express this understanding in a way that can be tolerated. In situations that result in empathic failure, reflection on these parameters can usefully serve attempts to regain an empathic connection. These parameters can provide a set of questions for establishing or regaining empathy.

A claim: This formulation can be a map for any empathic practice. It provides a method for a systematic and comparative analysis across ages, cultures, and species.

This is a further elaboration of Empathy and the Problem of Definition. The methods of paradigm case formulation and parametric analysis are described there. See also Intentional Action, Empathy and Psychotherapy.Special thanks to Pam Evans and CJ Stone for offering far better ways to say what I had expressed awkwardly.

Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D

Ordinary Empathy was originally published @ Freedom, Liberation and Reaction: Lessons in Psychology and has been syndicated with permission.

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