Introduction: What is Empathy?
Empathy comes from ancient Greek; the prefix “em-” means “in,” and “pathos” for “feeling.” So literally, empathy means, “in feeling.” There’s a lot of confusion about this term, some people see it as weak, or dangerous, and talk about being too empathetic. As we’ll explain below, that’s probably not the issue.
To be “in feeling” with ourselves or someone else, we’re connecting at an emotional level. There’s a great article introducing the neurobiology of empathy from a day we spent with neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni learning about mirror neurons.
At Six Seconds, one of the core emotional intelligence competencies we measure (on the Six Seconds emotional intelligence test, SEI) and focus on developing is: Increase Empathy. We define this learnable, measurable skill as:
Recognizing and appropriately responding to emotions.
Empathic, Empathetic and Empath
The words “empathic” and “empathetic” are synonyms that both refer to: Someone showing empathy.
Empath refers to someone who is highly attuned to others’ feelings.
Since increasing empathy is a learnable skill, we can all learn how to be more empathetic. The resources on this page will help – as will learning to understand emotions.
Are Empathetic People “Too Soft”?
One of the major confusions around empathy is that it means, “being nice” or “soft.” As is, “you are too empathetic because you didn’t fire that guy.” This misunderstanding is dangerous because it moves people to cut off empathy and reduce their own effectiveness. Also, since empathy helps make ethical and sustainable decisions, it can have disastrous effects.
Empathy does not mean “permissive,” “soft,” or “passive.” If fact, someone who is highly empathic will deeply value people’s feelings — and therefore will often communicate “hard things” in a way that the person can hear. Also, someone who’s truly empathic is empathic with all people — and therefore will not permit one person to be harmful to many.
Can you be too empathetic?
At the other extreme, a frequent fear about empathy is that an empath will “take on the pain” of others. In the true definition of “in feeling,” empathy is not about fixing, solving, healing, absorbing other’s pain and problems.
In fact, people who learn to increase empathy generally find they empathy makes interacting with others EASIER and less burdensome.
However, if a person has challenges with navigating emotions (managing emotions) they might find THAT a challenge and blame it on too much empathy.