The Importance of Empathy: How to Strengthen Our Ability to Be Empathic? (page 2)

By — Dr. Robert Brooks
Updated on Mar 16, 2009

1. A Lack of Models: If we grew up in a home in which our parents were not empathic, in which our communications were not validated, in which we were told how we should feel or not feel, it is more difficult to learn to take the perspective of another person. While having empathic parents does not guarantee that we will become empathic, it is certainly an important factor. I recall an initial family therapy meeting in which a teenage girl mentioned that she felt very depressed. Her mother responded, “But there’s no reason for you to be depressed. We give you everything you need and we’re a loving family.” While mother’s intention may have been to be reassuring, her failure to acknowledge what her daughter was saying led the daughter to withdraw and become more sullen. If mother had been empathic and validated what her daughter had said (e.g., “I’m glad you could let us know how you feel. Together we can try to figure out what would help you to feel less depressed”), I am certain her daughter would have been more responsive and in addition, would have been exposed to someone demonstrating empathy.

2. Empathy Is Sacrificed When We Are Upset, Angry, or Disappointed with the Other Person (People): While most individuals consider themselves to be empathic, in fact, it is difficult to be empathic when we are frustrated or angry with others. I have witnessed people who are angry say hurtful things to their children, their spouse, their students, their employees that they would not have said if they were less stressed and frustrated. For example, I was seeing a shy, socially immature seven-year-old boy in therapy who received an invitation to go to a classmate’s birthday party. He was very excited since he typically was not invited to such events. However, the party proved to be a disaster when several of the other boys said to him that he didn’t belong at the party. When his mother came to pick him up, he was seated by himself, looking withdrawn and sad. While his mother was a caring person, when she saw him all alone, her anxiety and frustration about his isolation from peers was aroused and she said to him, “No wonder you don’t have any friends, you always sit by yourself!” The moment these words were uttered she wished she could take them back, especially as she observed her son’s tears. She cried as she described this situation at our next meeting, saying that she couldn’t believe she would say something like this to her son. Her anxiety and disappointment had interfered with her capacity to be empathic and offer her son the support he needed.

3. I’m Right, You’re Wrong! There are a number of people who have a reflex negative reaction towards anyone who has an opinion different from theirs. They feel threatened when someone questions their point of view, immediately becoming defensive and failing to appreciate the other person’s perspective. Their entire demeanor suggests that they are poised for attack and will not permit alternative views to enter their space. I consulted with one manager who had lost a number of his staff. At first he voiced surprise that so many had quit, believing that he encouraged and welcomed their input. However, what I learned in my consultation was that when an employee voiced concern about how difficult it was to give him feedback since he became angry if the feedback was not totally positive, he confirmed this observation by abruptly telling this employee that the latter had “difficulty with authority.” This manager’s need to be right and his intense defensiveness blinded him from seeing other possible perspectives. I have seen the same dynamic in parent-child relationships as well as teacher-child relationships. It is difficult to be empathic when we are constantly defensive and not willing to listen to others. Collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork are virtually impossible to achieve under such conditions.

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