When someone is suffering, it can be agonizing just to listen—we feel compelled to jump in with advice or stories of our own trials, filling any awkward space or moments of silent air with word upon word. The first rule of empathy, however, is listening in silence.
Miki Kashtan, writing for the Tikkun Daily interfaith blog, points out that giving our full presence is the most important step in practicing true empathy, and it doesn’t require us to utter a thing: “There is a high correlation between one person’s listening presence and the other person’s sense of not being alone, and this is communicated without words. We can be present with someone whose language we don’t understand, who speaks about circumstances we have never experienced or whose reactions are baffling to us. It’s a soul orientation and intentionality to simply be with another.”
When we achieve full presence, empathic understanding follows, Kashtan continues. “Full empathic presence includes the breaking open of our heart to take in another’s humanity. We listen to their words and their story, and allow ourselves to be affected by the experience of what it would be like.
“Then we understand. Empathic understanding is different from empathic presence. We can have presence across any barrier, and it’s still a gift. If we also understand, even without saying anything, I believe the other person’s sense of being heard increases, and they are even less alone with the weight of their experience.”
There are signs that empathy might be on the decline, with narcissism elbowing it out of our modern lives. As reported in the Utne Reader, University of Michigan psychologist Sara Konrath, Ph.D., found that empathy levels among college students measured on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index plummeted between 1979 and 2009. The greatest drops were in empathic concern and perspective-taking—the ability to imagine another person’s point of view.
But don’t yet lament the death of human compassion. According to scientific studies, empathy is built into us. In recent research at the University of Southern California, Professor Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, Ph.D., pinpointed where and how the brain generates empathy, regarding it as a naturally occurring emotion. “It appears that both the intuitive and rationalizing parts of the brain work in tandem to create the sensation of empathy,” Aziz-Zadeh told The Times of India. “People do it automatically.”
However we get to that utterly tuned-in, selfless state of empathy, providing a listening ear, giving our full presence and being moved by another can be gifts not only to the others, but to ourselves, as well. Concludes Kashtan, “Allowing into our heart the other person’s suffering doesn’t mean we suffer with them, because that means shifting the focus of our attention to our own experience. Rather, it means that we recognize the experience as fully human, and behold the beauty of it in all its aspects, even when difficult.”
Margret Aldrich is a former associate editor of Utne Reader.