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Understanding Empathy

Empathy, which is the ability to sense another’s emotional state, contributes to an individual’s emotional intelligence. A person who regularly demonstrates empathy is usually better adjusted emotionally, more popular, more outgoing, and more sensitive.

Empathy often is visible at an early age. Studies show that parents can foster empathy in children by using discipline that points out how a child’s misbehavior causes someone else to feel, rather than emphasizing the “badness” of the behavior.

Alternatively, empathy can be stifled when attunement between parents and children is absent – when parents consistently ignore their children’s feelings.

Children whose emotions have been ignored begin to avoid expressing emotions and may even stop feeling emotions. With awareness of their own feelings blunted, they lose the ability to empathize because understanding others’ feelings is impossible without sensing your own first.

Studies have found evidence that our brains are wired for empathy. Initial research in monkeys and subsequent research in humans leaves no doubt that empathy has a physiological basis.

Special neuron activity in the area of the brain known as the amygdala occurs when an individual reads nonverbal expressions and gestures that communicate specific emotions. And since research has shown that 90 percent or more of an emotional message is nonverbal, empathy is especially effective when it is conveyed through nonverbal messages.

It’s also important to keep in mind that empathy and sympathy are distinct skills. Sympathy involves the ability to view a situation and sense what you yourself might feel, while empathy requires you to look at that situation and sense what the other person is feeling (which might not be the same as your feelings).

Emotional intelligence is enhanced by the ability to empathize, and when it is lacking, it can seriously impair social interactions. Individuals with high levels of empathy are more sensitive and better adjusted emotionally.

To improve your emotional health, strive to be self-aware, and to assess your own ability to empathize with others. Remember, knowledge of your own strengths and weaknesses is the first step on the road to improving your own emotional intelligence.