I discovered recently that the word “empathy” did not exist in English until 1909, when Cornell University psychologist Edward Bradford Titchner coined the word when he translated German word “Einfühlung” as “empathy” in his lectures about the work of a German psychologist called Willhelm Wundt.
The German word might be more accurately translated as something akin to “feeling one’s way into”, but having a single word helps capture the idea and allows for a wider range of responses to the idea of “putting ourselves in the place of the persona we are relating to”. Previously, to express this type of activity in a relationship the word most often used was sympathy, which to our 21st century ears is not the same – more akin to pity, care, concern, solidarity even, but not actively trying to be in the place of the person with whom we empathise.
Empathy takes a very different type of energy and insight than sympathy. They are complementary but yet different. They both act as key drivers in acts of compassion, but they begin from different places. They are both an expression of human relationships, creating life-enhancing connections at a level deeper than simply intellectual. One is not better than the other; they are simply different.
Although both are necessary and neither is better than the other, empathy is much more at the heart of what we strive to do at Cyrenians. Even when we are simply signposting, those “one touch moments” when our task is to direct a person to someone who can better help them than we can, our task is to be empathetic – to put ourselves in the place where the person contacting us is, asking how will it be to hear what we have to say and to feel they matter to us.
In some ways, those brief contacts are more difficult places to be empathetic than the long-term relationships, which are the bedrock of many of our services. In longer-term relationships, empathy can grow in time, through presence and understanding, informed by conversation and reflection. We have time to think through how we can be properly empathetic. It is still a tough task, especially when those we are journeying with have come from very tough realities, especially when choices made en route have hurt others. It’s one of the reasons that our peer support groups are so important, as are the other forms of supervision we have in place. Support and time to think and talk about what it will take to refill the inner well are crucial.
To be empathetic in brief, one-off conversations requires us to act as much with our subconscious as our conscious mind. So our tone, our word, our questions and our responses are informed with empathetic understanding even if we don’t actually have time to think consciously “how can I understand what its like to be in the place of the person I am listening to?”. It’s tough, but it can be done with great effect.
Recently I met someone who said to me when they learnt where I worked: “Cyrenians – I know who you are – I applied for a job with you and I didn’t even get an interview…” I braced myself for a follow up critical comment but instead the person went on to say – “I was disappointed but I’d still like to work for you – anyone who treats unsuccessful job applicants like you do is a going to be good employer”.
They had been applying for many jobs at the time and had been in a tough place. They often spent hours on applications simply to hear nothing. It was soul destroying. When it came to Cyrenians, they told me, the way whoever had spoken to them before they applied and the communication afterwards had, in their words, “made them feel they mattered at a time when all they knew was rejection”. They now have a good job but they traced the moment when they moved from despondency to hope to the way they were treated by Cyrenians when we said no. They felt we were thinking about how it would feel to hear the word no and so what they heard was not rejection but empathy and support and it made a big difference.
Even the briefest of moments can make the biggest of differences when we act with empathy. It really can change lives, not only in what might be seen as our direct services.
14 September 2017