Empathy and emotions can be quite an elusive topic, because we can’t really see emotions and empathy it’s difficult to make an objective analysis of them. On the other hand, emotions are so central to being healthy and productive human beings and they can begin or end every kind of relationship we have with others. Therefore, we can’t possibly ignore them. It’s essential to understand them better and most of all understand how to become allies with our emotions and the emotions of others, so that they can work in our favor and not against us. Since empathy is the ability to feel the emotions of the other, the first step we can take to become better at empathy is to understand ourselves and our own emotions better, which will then enable us to do the same for others. This article covers the 6 stages of empathy, and gives insight on how we can recognize and develop ourselves in each of the stages.
Why did I choose this tool? Having identified myself as an empath, I thought that empathy was something that I knew everything about. When someone experiences an intense emotion in my presence, I feel it in my own body. If they are crying (genuinely), I will automatically cry with them as well and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. But when I was tasked with writing about empathy, I realized that even though I have these experiences all the time I don’t actually know much about what they are, or what to do about them. This led me on a quest for more information, and it wasn’t until I found this model for understanding empathy that I started to look at my empathic skills more in depth and see what part I’m naturally good at (for example emotion contagion) and what part I need to develop further (for example emotion regulation). Although I know I still have a lot to learn on this topic, it empowers me to know at least where to look. I also feel motivated to know that it is possible to make progress in this skill, rather than considering empathy something completely outside of my control, something that can make me a victim or a hero but which I have no say in. For this reason, while I still consider empathy to be just the part of “feeling someone else’s emotion” or as it’s called here “emotion contagion”, I like all the other steps and how they can turn empathy into a useful skill that can actually be developed.
How does this apply to being a trainer? Even though as trainers we are working a lot with facts and figures, models, learning goals and so many other factors, what will matter the most to participants in the end is how they felt during the training. Were they engaged or bored? Did they have a good time with the other participants, or was it a constant battle? Did they enjoy the activities; did it ignite them in some way? Or did it just make them anxious, or uninspired? Because the emotions of the participants play a huge part in the perceived success or failure of the training, it is so important that we, as trainers, can understand these emotions and have “perceptive engagement”. And we can’t just stay on the safe side and only do things that we know will make participants happy or we risk not reaching the training goals at all and having an overkill of energizers. We need to be skilled at engaging the participants on the emotional level, but also to know how to regulate and work with the different emotions that will inevitably show up during the training. Emotions have a huge impact on the learning experience, because even when one learning moment has a strong emotional connection to it, it can stick with us forever. Imagine the impact of a whole training that has a high level of emotional engagement, and when that emotional engagement is connected to useful learning outcomes.
- Emotional Contagion
Emotional contagion happens when someone feels the emotion of someone else (or of a group of people). Most people’s definition of empathy is actually just the emotion contagion part, the ability to feel someone else’s emotions.
According to the opinions of some individuals and experts, you can only experience emotional contagion if you have actually gone through the same situation that they are going through. For instance, you can only empathize with someone after a breakup if you have been through a breakup yourself, or you can only empathize with someone who has lost someone dear to them if the same has happened to you.
I believe this understanding is faulty for 2 main reasons.
- While the situation may be unique to that person, the emotion is not. Because the base emotions (fear, anger, joy, sadness, etc.) are universal and common to all human beings. A situation or an event is not an emotion, therefore it isn’t possible to empathize with it, but only understand it intellectually. What we can empathize with are the emotions that result from the situation, like sadness because of the loss of someone dear, or anger because of an unpleasant breakup.
- The same situation can bring completely different emotions to different people or even to the same person at different times/stages of their life. While in some cases sadness or even depression can be the result of a divorce (for instance), in other cases it could bring happiness and exhilaration if the person who got divorced feels that their life is a lot better because of it. With emotional contagion we will pick up on the actual emotion that the person is feeling, regardless of what we might expect them to feel or what we think would be appropriate to the situation.
- Empathic Accuracy
So, you picked up on an emotion from someone else through emotional contagion, but what is it exactly? Is it happiness? Fear? Guilt? Curiosity? If you have empathic accuracy, you will be able to determine not only what kind of emotion it is, but also its intensity.
You won’t make the mistake of saying “why are you so angry?” to someone who is mildly annoyed, possibly causing them to become very angry at this comment. Or you won’t tell someone “there’s nothing to be afraid of” when actually they are not feeling afraid at all but are instead feeling guilty about going against their principles. Even more importantly, you won’t make the mistake of bundling all emotions together and telling someone to “stop being emotional” given that there are so many different emotions that have different needs attached to them and require different types of responses and actions.
- Emotion Regulation
Being able to regulate emotions is so important, especially if you are someone who feels every emotion very intensely and also experiences a lot of emotional contagion. It can mean knowing how to become calm again when you’re feeling angry, rather than reacting impulsively to the anger. Or it can mean sometimes regulating joy so that you don’t spend the day just in euphoria and ignore all your responsibilities and commitments. I don’t see emotion regulation as controlling emotions, because I don’t believe that it’s healthy or sustainable. Rather I see it as managing your response to the emotion to ensure that it is something that serves to you and to others and doesn’t hurt you or anyone else. It can also mean regulating your experiences so that you cater towards the things that make you feel the way you want to feel, and stay away from things that make you feel what you don’t want to feel. For instance, if I know that turning on upbeat music in the morning will make me feel good and energize me for the day, I can regulate my emotions by doing just that. And if I know that watching the news every night makes me go to bed sad and angry at the atrocities happening all over the world, I can regulate my emotions by not watching the news at night and just checking headlines at a different time or asking my friends to keep me updated if there’s anything important.
When it comes to regulating the emotions in others, it is especially important to know what you are doing in this sense in a training setting. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly doing things that are changing the emotional state of the participants. Think of energizers, or putting on music before a session, or giving a well-timed coffee break, or starting a discussion on a heated and perhaps controversial topic. While we can’t (and shouldn’t) control what participants feel and when, we definitely influence this by the activities that we choose and their timing, so it’s important we have the tools and awareness we need to regulate our own emotions and those of the others.
- Perspective Taking
I see perspective taking as more of the intellectual part of empathy, where you take the emotion that you felt from the other person (and perhaps regulated in yourself so that you still have the ability to think clearly) and you think about what that might mean to them, and what they might need at this moment. For instance, you know that someone is very sad because they lost someone dear to them. And you also know that they are struggling with their sense of identity at the same time because of the changes that are happening in their life. From this you may understand how they might be feeling completely overwhelmed at this moment, and maybe not able to think very clearly, and you can support them according to this knowledge.
- Concern for Others
Without this element, all of the stages of empathy above are useless at best and dangerous at worst. Useless because what’s the point of understanding exactly how someone feels if you don’t care at all about their well-being? And dangerous because if you have ill intentions and you know exactly how someone feels and how to regulate their emotions, you can use this knowledge to manipulate them into doing things that are not in their best interest.
“It’s interesting, then, to note which kinds of people are causally referred to as being absolutely anti-empathic and psychopathic; certainly criminals are, but so are bosses, ex-spouses, capitalists, and politicians. But, in fact, these people have to be able to read us and meet our needs in order to influence us skillfully and get their own needs met. There are many aspects of empathy working in all of these seemingly unempathic people; where they fall down is in their Concern for Others.”
McLaren, Karla. The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill . Sounds True.
- Perceptive Engagement
This is where you put all of the above to good use and do something worthwhile with it. Perceptive engagement is where you understand what that person is feeling, what they need, and you are able to take action to help them to meet that need. It could be anything, or its exact opposite. The defining factor of perceptive engagement is that it is done solely for them and not for ourselves, and it meets the need that they have at that moment. You could offer them a hug, if you feel they would appreciate that, or you could not offer them a hug, if you feel it could make them uncomfortable. You could go and talk to them and ask them how they’re feeling, if you feel that they need to express themselves, or you could not go and talk to them, if you feel that they need the privacy and alone time. Perceptive engagement, or the lack of it, becomes very apparent when we are taking care of children. Do we leave them to play on their own because they prefer this at the moment, or because we want to do something else with our time? If we go and play with them, is it because this is what they want or because we feel that we should be spending time with them in this way?
Perceptive engagement is what requires the highest level of all other 4 stages of empathy, because no one can give you general rules on how to engage perceptively, and yet perceptive engagement is where you can actually make a difference for the better.
Where do I stand on each of the 5 stages of empathy, on a scale from 0 – 10?
- Emotional Contagion
0 = I never pick up on other people’s emotions
10 = I’m always getting inundated by the emotions of other people and even what I see on TV
2. Empathic Accuracy
0 = I get that someone else (or myself) is feeling something positive or negative, but I have no idea what it is exactly or what its intensity level is
10 = I can name exactly every emotion that I pick up on and I know its exact intensity
3. Emotion Regulation
0 = I have no idea how to manage my emotions and the emotion of other people, I’m either a victim of them or blessed by them and there’s nothing I can do about it
10 = When I recognize an emotion in myself or others, I know exactly what to do about it, how to regulate its intensity if I choose to, and how to make myself and others feel better
- Perspective taking
0 = I don’t know how to take the perspective of the other person, I can only see what I need and want in any given situation
10 = It’s very easy for me to take the perspective of the other person and to deeply understand what they are going through
- Concern for others
0 = I really don’t care how other people are feeling and what they need
10 = I deeply care about how other people are feeling and what they need, and will go out of my way to be there for them and help them as much as I can
2. Perceptive engagement
0 = I have no idea what to do in the presence of strong emotions, and I usually say or do something that doesn’t work or makes matters worse, even when I have good intentions.
10 = I’m confident in my ability to do or refrain from doing something when in the presence of strong emotions, and it always makes the situation better.
How to apply it in everyday life:
If you scored 10 on all of the above, you are likely not human, or at least not a human who is very aware of themselves. While perfection in empathy is impossible (and, I think, an oxymoron, because if we’re so perfect how can we have empathy for other “imperfect” human beings?), becoming aware of ourselves and where we stand in it can be so helpful in making life better for ourselves and others. The 6 stages of empathy are something you can get better at every single day, by trying different approaches and checking how it makes you feel and how it makes others feel. Have fun developing your empathy skills, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, there are no mistakes as long as you learn something from it and do it differently next time that just turns it into a practice run.