Today is World Kindness Day, which for 19 years has been suggesting we explore the question “What does kindness mean to us?” It comes in many forms. For me, the most intriguing is empathy.

It started with a conversation my wife and I had over the defintion. We realized we had different notions of what sympathy and empathy meant. I mentioned on a Facebook post that listening and trying to understand what she meant by it felt like a metaphor.

I looked up online resources and sure enough, nobody is in complete agreement on the matter. In the same post, I asked if anybody had good resources on it.

A friend posted a great Stanford article that confirmed the definition of empathy is almost impossible to nail down. That article described empathy, in part, as a “dynamic, culturally situated, temporally extended, and dialogical process actively involving not only the interpreter but also his or her interpretee.” Not exactly something you can point at.

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A lot of people responded to the post, offering their own perspectives. They also ran the gamut:

  • “Being sympathetic is treating another with compassion because of their feelings. Being empathetic is understanding someone because of your own feelings.”
  • “Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone. Empathy is when you understand their sorrow.”
  • “Sympathy is feeling badly for someone, empathy is caring about how someone feels.”
  • “Sympathy is understanding an emotion and how best to react to it. Empathy is more putting yourself in people’s shoes to decipher their feelings.”
  • “Sympathy is for negative emotions, while empathy is more broad and can apply to any mental or physical state.”

Much like the Dao, empathy seems impossible to define. Which is why I liked another suggested resource: “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg.

In it, Rosenberg tackles what empathy in a similar way people describe enlightenment or the Dao: by describing what it is not. He lists the ways people react to grief that are not empathy:

  • Advising: “I think you should…” “How come you didn’t…?”
  • One-Upping: “That’s nothing; wait’ll you hear what happened to me.”
  • Educating: “This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just…”
  • Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”
  • Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time…”
  • Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”
  • Sympathizing: “Oh, you poor thing…”
  • Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
  • Explaining: “I would have called but…”
  • Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”

Reading this, I noticed two things. First, sympathy is just one of a myriad of responses. The second thing I noticed is I’ve been doing a lot of things to people that weren’t a display of empathy.

None of these responses are coming from a bad place. I want to fix things, and so when somebody is feeling like crap, I become an advisor. As a yoga teacher, it’s my profession.

But it’s not empathy. Rosenberg says that “intellectual understanding blocks empathy.” As some who loves intellectualising everything, I pull the rug out from under my feet. I’m bringing a calculator to a gardening party.

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Rosenberg says empathy includes two things. The first is presence. He even quotes Chuang-Tzu:

“The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens.”

And when somebody listens with all their faculties, the second thing becomes simple: Acknowledge their observations, feelings, needs and requests.

For now, this seems to be a workable definition of empathy for me: Deep listening and acknowledgement. Sounds kind of…kind.


Richard Gartner is leading a 300 hour teacher training in Pittsburgh in 2018, which includes deep listening and non-violent communication techniques.  More information here.

Artwork from the Romantice Drawing Series by Studio Beerhorst.
Used with Creative Commons 2.0 license.