Can you teach people to be more empathetic? Yes and no

Apr 28, 2021

Empathy training is trendy in the corporate world. In light of the events in Parliament House in the recent past, empathy training has arrived there too. Rather than demanding that the Liberal National MP Andrew Laming resigns for his alleged misconduct, the Prime Minister has requested that he undertakes empathy training.

Last weekend The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age asked several Federal MPs to participate in a one-hour Zoom demonstration session to gain insight into empathy training.

The reactions were interesting and capture the essential problem with empathy training. Craig Kelly concluded that “Either you have empathy or you don’t have it. You could do training to understand the effect of your lack of empathy. It doesn’t give you empathy…”  Zali Steggall suggested that “It was interesting in terms of spelling out some of those aspects of appropriate conduct”.

So, what is empathy and how do we define it? Can empathy really be taught like reading or writing or like managerial or other related skills? Relevant psychological research indicates that for example, a psychopath cannot become more empathetic. Why is that? While it may seem an extreme example, the explanation lies in the understanding of the very nature of empathy.

There is now widespread agreement among empathy researchers that dispositional or trait empathy is not a single concept but rather a multidimensional one, consisting of both cognitive and emotional components. Broadly, how a person reacts to the experiences of another person or group of people, with empathy or lack of it, defines dispositional or trait empathy.

Trait empathy is a stable part of a person’s personality characteristic and cannot be changed. It involves the ability to take the perspectives of others and understand and connect with their feelings on an emotional level. A person who is truly empathetic is able to quickly understand other people’s emotions and assess mostly on an intuitive level if they are experiencing difficulties. Unfortunately, traits cannot be changed as they are integral to the person. Accordingly, the core emotional basis for trait empathy cannot be taught. Take for example a narcissist. One of the enduring characteristics of a narcissistic personality is a lack of empathy for others, which training cannot change. So, what can be changed through empathy training?

There is another dimension that can be enhanced by training particular skills and behaviour. While trait empathy is intuitive, some form of “empathy-like behaviour” can be encouraged through training. This is because you can teach aspects of empathic skills which are intellectual in nature such as better communication and better listening skills. Empathy training can teach skills that enable the person to communicate better, to listen more carefully and how to relate to other people better. These are very valuable skills enhancing human interaction but they are more about learnt skills than true empathy.

For example, Andrew Laming can learn to be more respectful, listen more carefully and communicate less aggressively. That makes him a better communicator which is important, but that does not mean there has been a change in his capacity to be intuitively empathetic. He will become a better communicator and improve his behaviour but it will not change his integral trait empathy. The emotional resonance is intellectual rather than a deeper emotional connection. In other words, a change in communication style but not necessarily a deep emotional connection with others.

Through empathy training, people become more socially adept and skilful. Empathy training, in the final analysis, is about communication and being more aware of how to treat others. It is certainly useful and can be helpful for someone like Andrew Laming. Can it change the level of real caring? That is debatable.

In the end, training is a form of teaching particular skills and/or kinds of behaviour. Both Zalli Steggall and Craig Kelly seem to have understood this even though they come from very different political standpoints.

Primo Levi in his famous book If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo) recounts his experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp and describes an incident which epitomises what empathy is inherently about. After the Germans abandoned the camp, he witnessed what can be called acts of humanity. When the Germans retreated, they left the prisoners to fend for themselves, cold and hungry, not knowing if and when they would be liberated. What he recalls is the spontaneous sharing of the meagre bread the prisoners had. That is true empathy which gave him hope for the future.

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