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Authors: Karla McLaren

The Art of Empathy

BOOK: The Art of Empathy
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For you who long to connect deeply, to understand clearly, to respond perceptively, and to engage authentically, I welcome you.

Empathy is an art, but
are the artist.
Thank you for bringing your unique empathic artistry to our waiting world.


Preface: A Note to You

Welcoming Empathy into Your Life

What Is Empathy, and Why Is It Important?

Defining and Redefining Empathy

An Empathic Approach

An Empath's Guide to Empathy

Developing Your Social and Emotional Intelligence

An Empath's Guide to Emotions

Why Emotions Arise

The Art of Empathy

Gathering Your Tools

Bringing Your Empathy into the World

Empaths at Home

Creating a Sanctuary Where Empathy Can Flourish

Empathic Friendships, Empathic Love

Relationships as an Empathic Art Form

Empathic Communication

Getting into Sync with Others

Empathic Mentoring, Empathic Parenting

Nurturing and Supporting Empathy in Children

Empathy at Work

Excelling in the Art of Emotion Work

Empathy for the World

The Empathic Art of Social Justice

Envisioning an Empathic Civilization, Together


Emotional Vocabulary List

Your Emotional Styles


Further Resources


About the Author

About Sounds True



A Note to You

WE ALL LONG to be seen and understood, to be valued and honored, and to be loved for exactly who we are. We also want to connect deeply with others, understand them clearly, and respond skillfully to their wants and needs. We want to navigate through difficulties and conflicts with grace, and we want our relationships to be a source of healing, strength, humor, and love. We want
and we want to know how to offer our empathy to others.

Luckily, each of us already has an innate talent for empathy, and most of us developed our capacity for fully compassionate and empathic engagement when we were just toddlers (research suggests that our empathic skills can develop before we're two years old; we'll explore that research in this book). We humans are a deeply and intrinsically empathic species—we can tune into the emotions, wishes, thoughts, intentions, and hopes of others, and we can make intelligent decisions about how we'll respond to the information we receive. Through our empathic skills, we can get into sync with others, understand them, and meet their needs in ingenious ways. Empathy helps us witness, engage with, and respond skillfully not only to humans and animals, but also to nature, art, music, ideas, ideologies (such as traditionalism, existentialism, etc.), and even structures (such as buildings, public spaces, and living and working areas).

Empathy is everywhere: it's the air you breathe and the ground you walk on; it makes relationships, communities, and societies work. And yet, empathy can also be something of a mystery. Because empathy is such a central part of everything you do, you can overlook it and almost ignore the processes that make empathy work (or stop working). This is actually an important part of how empathy functions, because you don't want to have to think about every
piece of empathic information you pick up, then catalog all of it, then reflect on each piece, and then plod through all of your possible responses. In fact, it's
that empathy is generally hidden from your conscious notice! But when you want to consciously work with your empathy—either to increase it or to calm it down—it's very important to be able to enter into that hidden world and understand the processes of empathy very clearly.

In this book, you'll learn how to access the often-hidden world of empathy, emotional awareness, and the interactional space that surrounds you. You'll also learn how to bring skills and organization to your empathy so that it will become a dependable and valuable resource for you and your friends, your family, your loved ones, your colleagues, and our waiting world.

But before we begin, we must attend to three pieces of empathic business. First, your health and happiness are important to me. Empathy and emotional sensitivity are essential capacities, but in a relatively insensitive and emotion-averse culture, both can be difficult to manage. This book offers support, ideas, and strategies to help you work with emotions and empathy and to become a healthy and happy empath. But it is important to note that not all aspects of emotional and empathic sensitivity should be addressed through self-help. Therapy, counseling, and (in conditions such as repetitive anxieties, depressions, or rage disorders) medical support are often necessary. Please reach out for the help of professionals if your situation becomes uncomfortable.

Second, the health and happiness of the people I've worked with are important to me, too. Although this book is based on my lifetime study of emotions and empathy, and by my four decades of empathic work with others, you won't find stories about those individuals here. My empathic work occurs in a private and strongly enclosed sacred space where
emotions are welcomed. As such, things can get very deep, very quickly, and I'm not there trying to gather anecdotes for my books. My work is clearly deepened and informed by all of the wonderful people I've consulted with, but their stories belong to them. As you read, you may notice that I write vignettes about myself, which may seem egocentric; however, I've chosen to use myself as an example because mine is the only story I have the ethical right to tell. If I do write about others, I protect their identities or I get their permission, or both.

And third, in this post-Internet world, the rules and conventions about using material from blog posts are becoming more formal. Some of the material on empathy and emotions in this book first appeared (in a less detailed form) on my blog at or on my author's page at Facebook.
Blogging and status writing are special forms of writing that allow me to quickly sketch out ideas (or answer readers' questions), and often, those sketches provide an excellent template for the more fully detailed explorations that books allow. In this book, I borrow from and incorporate some of my previous writing; when I do, I'll tell you about it.

In our work together, we'll enter into the hidden world of empathy so that you can learn how to become a healthy, happy, and intentional empath who works
emotions instead of working
them—and instead of being worked over
them! I'm happy to tell you that it doesn't matter where you start, what your empathy training was like in childhood, or where you currently reside on the continuum from low empathy to high empathy. No matter where you are, you're a member of an extensively empathic and intrinsically emotive species, and the tools you need to become a skilled empath are waiting inside you. Welcome!


Welcoming Empathy into Your Life


What Is Empathy, and Why Is It Important?

THIS BOOK ABOUT empathy is being written in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when intensive research on empathy is occurring in more than half a dozen academic disciplines. Empathy is
it's a major topic, and it's currently the focus of extensive review, research, and debate. Researchers all over the world are focusing tremendous attention on defining empathy, and many competing views of the components of empathy are being argued about in academic journals and conferences (we'll explore many of these views in this book). Empathy is a major topic of multidisciplinary and international interest right now.

Empathy is also a major topic of interest in your personal and professional life, where it helps you understand others well enough to successfully communicate and work with them. Empathy is also an essential part of love (though you don't have to love others to empathize with them skillfully—you don't even have to know them). Empathy helps you connect with others, feel alongside them, understand them, work with them, meet their needs, love them, and be loved by them. Empathy is essential for the health of your relationships, and empathy is fundamental to your social and emotional skills.

Empathy—or rather the
of empathy—is also a central feature of modern American politics, where our profoundly polarized political parties are perfect examples of how too much identification with “our side” and a corresponding lack of empathy for the “other side” (and even the willingness to create another side) lead directly to unworkable, conflict-based posturing that has essentially paralyzed our entire political process. As we
can clearly see by its absence, empathy is crucial to the functioning of all social structures—large, small, intimate, local, national, and international. So what, exactly, is empathy?


If you and I sat together in a café, comfortable and congenial, we could probably come up with a fairly clear definition of
We would likely agree that empathy is a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and comprehend the emotions, wishes, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others. We would also want to include a capacity to help others in our definition, because empathy tends to involve some form of action that allows us to interact with and offer support, assistance, or a listening ear to people we empathize with. In our definition, we'd probably conclude that empathy makes us aware of and available to the emotions, circumstances, and needs of others so that we can interact with them skillfully.

We would also probably agree that we'd prefer to be with an empathic person who could understand, connect to, interact with, and support us skillfully, as opposed to an unempathic person who did not know how to get into sync with us. In our relaxed café discussion, we might take fewer than five minutes to define empathy in a way that made sense to both of us, and yet we'd be jumping the gun. As I mentioned, researchers and theorists are engaged in an extensive rethinking of the definition and the function of empathy, and it is currently the topic of intense review and debate.

We'll visit these debates in
Chapter 2
, and we'll deepen our definition of empathy throughout this book. However, as we commence with our study of empathy, let's define it this way:

is a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others, such that we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support.

In a way, we could call empathy the social and emotional glue that helps us create and maintain our relationships. It's a skill and a trait that we all possess in varying degrees—and it's a trait that's shared by many of our animal friends. It's also a skill and a trait that's very strong in certain people—while some of us struggle to empathize with clarity, others are exceptionally
sensitive to the emotions, circumstances, and needs of everyone and everything around them. I identify these latter people as

BOOK: The Art of Empathy
5.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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