The Importance of Empathy


     “By becoming the other person, by truly walking into the fears of the other and then returning into your own being again, you open up the conversation to transcend the personal and become impersonal.” Gary Zukav

Without empathy, conversations get stuck pretty quickly.  When I am upset about something, if the other person shows little or no concern for my distress, I find myself wanting to withdraw and pull away.  It is not an unusual response.  The pulling away is because I feel threatened and want to protect myself.  Not only is it an emotional response, it is an instinctual response.  We humans are wired to protect ourselves when threatened.  It only makes sense.  But, that very protection also causes us to pull away from the other person.

We humans have neurobiological systems built into our physiology.  One of those systems is the Fear System (see “Affective Neuroscience:  The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, 1998 Jaak Panksepp) and when that system gets activated we are motivated to escape.  This explains to me why I have a great desire to avoid conflict.  Many of us do.

I work in organizations and I contract to go into the system to assist with conflict that is not being addressed.  Time and time again, I see people using avoidance as a method for managing conflict.  It is understandable since many of us have lots of fear around conflict.

  Will it get worse if I say something?  Will the other person hate me?  I don’t know what to say so I’ll just let it go.  I don’t want to be seen as a trouble maker, I’ll just keep my mouth shut.

The way out of this stuck place is empathy.  When I show empathy and compassion to myself, rather than judgement and criticism, I soothe my anxiety and am more likely to speak up.  When I show compassion and empathy for the other person, I will lower their fear response.  With both of us having a lowered fear response, connection and discussion becomes a possibility.

Written by Deborah White, BSW,MA.