Empathy: Empathy – An Acquired Skill

Empathy involves accurately tuning into and responding to the feelings of another person. It involves responding to the feelings in a way that allows the other to know he has been heard. Empathy involves “hearing the whole person” (i.e., who he is, how he feels about himself and his world), not merely his words.

Empathy is a finely honed interpersonal skill which can be improved by specific practice. Identification of feelings, accurate interpretation of facial and vocal cues, and responding to others with understanding are all skills that improve with specific training and experience.

Empathy is not something “you are born with.” An infant has no way of perceiving the difference between himself and his environment. He interprets all sensations that come to him as belonging to him. If Mother is anxious, he senses this and fusses. The infant is anxious and unhappy. He has no way of knowing that his feelings can be separated from Mother’s feelings. In fact, at first he has no way of separately identifying himself from Mother. Slowly the infant learns to distinguish between himself and other things, himself and other people. This learning is unrefined but is the foundation of mature empathy – the “feeling with” another while maintaining your own identity.

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