Empathy: An Etymology and Introduction

Effective listening is always empathic listening. And it’s critical in awakening the unique personal vocation in another.

First, what do we mean by empathy?

Oxford dictionary provides a clean, clear definition: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” So it’s not a pure intellectual act. You “get” where they are coming from. You see the world from their perspective.

The word “empathy” comes from the Greek word empatheia. The root of that word is pathos or feeling.  The Greek prefix “em” means “in” or “to go into.”   So, in empathy we go into the feelings of the other. More broadly, we go into the experience of the other.

Empathy is not Sympathy

Empathy is not Sympathy

This is not the same thing as sympathy. Two word are often confused. “Sympathy,” as Stephen Covey says “is a form of agreement, a form of judgment.” Sympathy assumes that the other’s position is correct.

The Greek prefix “sym” or its variation “syn” means “with” or “together.” So sympathy means that we feel with the other in the sense of agreement. “I can sympathize with coal miners frustrated with poor working conditions.” I agree with their position.

It can also express common feeling that assumes agreement:  “As we left the funeral the sympathy felt by the parishioners for their beloved priest knit their hearts together.”

Often sympathy is right and proper, but it is not the same as empathy.

Empathy does not entail agreement. This is very critical point. It is very possible and indeed necessary for human relationships that we enter into the feelings of others – stand in their shoes, see the world from their perspective – without simply taking on those feelings.

Empathy Expressed in Listening

Let’s turn now to how empathy is expressed in communication and, in particular, through listening.

“The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone,” Covey writes. “It’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person emotionally as well as intellectually.”

The basic disposition of empathic listening is:

  • Not closed or guarded (create wall with hands) but open (gesture of openness)
  • Does not start out pressing a point, making a case, but waits to see the emerging position from the other.
  • Assumes good will unless proven otherwise.

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Luke is co-creator of ActivPrayer and Executive Director of Inscape, an organization that he co-founded with Dr. Joshua Miller. Visit his Speaker page here.

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