Clients Share their Experiences
Testimonial of Learned Empathy
"We were talking in your office about the fact that empathy comes
naturally to many people but that it can also be taught or learned. I
mentioned that I went through that learning process on my own
and that it was slow and sometimes painful. Today I consider myself
a fairly empathic person with good EQ (I'm not just taking my own
impression for it, my wife and friends would hopefully corroborate that!)
I mentioned to you that I felt like I could pinpoint the day I "flipped
a switch" and really internalized and understood what empathy
meant and where its true value lay. Prior to that day, as best I can
recall, my attitude towards empathy was "I need to understand how
other people think in order to get things done", or some variant of
"how does empathy get me what I need". The day I started really
understanding empathy on a personal level was a year or so after
college and into my first "career" job. It wasn't a particularly
fast process for me!
A few weeks prior to the day I describe below, I had an experience
at work during which I'd acted like a jerk. I was talking to one
co-worker about some information I needed, when somebody
else who already knew the answer walked by. I jumped up
from my current conversation and ran over to talk to that second
individual, without giving a thought to the conversation I had
just abruptly terminated.
I would never do this intentionally. I'd always considered myself
to be a nice guy. I found out that I behaved this way second hand,
when another co-worker and friend was nice enough to call me
on it and ask how I could treat somebody like that. When he told
me what I'd done, I was pretty horrified but also baffled as to how or
why I'd behaved that way. It was not at all in keeping with my own
"picture" of who I was; my self identity was that I was nice and people
liked me. I did my best to awkwardly apologize, I'm not sure whether
my apology was accepted. I found the episode painful and confusing.
I relay this event because it was maybe a catalyst for what
happened a few weeks later.
The circumstances during which I felt I had an actual gut level
"realization" were pretty simple and nothing special. I'd organized a
small gathering at a club near work and invited some coworkers and
friends. My effort consisted of little more than reserving a table and
getting a group together. At the club, I was in a good mood and ordering
food and drinks for the group and checking in with people as
A friend came up to me and said something simple along the lines
of, "this is great, thanks for setting things up". She said it
warmly and sincerely, and I felt like she really meant it rather than
just as a courtesy. I remember at that moment having two
simultaneous reactions to her comment. The first was gratification
and feeling good about having done something nice. The second
was a kind of detached awareness that my usual reaction to a
compliment like that would have been much more automatic and
that I wouldn't have particularly noticed or enjoyed it.
I would normally have acknowledged the compliment because that
was expected of me, and treated it as just a formality with no
emotional response. For some reason on this occasion (and very few
times prior to that) I instead was actually warmed by the words and
felt good about myself for having heard them.
The moment I called my "realization" in our conversation,
was when I suddenly realized that empathy and awareness of
others could be this purely emotional response and have it's own value,
rather than a logical response along the lines of "oh good, I earned
some brownie points there." It's hard to explain, but I feel that that's
the day I started appreciating positive feedback and contribution to
others as its own merit rather than a "score" or simply the logical
result of a give and take. It became less important what I got out
of the transaction, and more important that I sincerely wanted to
create that positive response in others.
I came to the understanding in an intellectual way, that is, I stepped
outside of myself and noticed that I felt good for having earned a
compliment, independent of what else came with it, and that prior to
that I'd been robbing myself of that "benefit of empathy" by only
seeing empathy as an observation of others.
I hope that makes sense, it's a hard transition to try to describe.
I also think it created a virtuous feedback loop, and that I began
changing in an increasingly empathetic way as I enjoyed more and
more positive experiences. It still seems odd to me that I had to
"learn" this by observing, rather than just accepting it emotionally.
(My son) ...he exhibits the same 'thinking' response
to empathy and awareness of others that I grew up with, and I'd
love for him to be able to internalize it sooner than I did."
-Anonymous Client 2013