Becoming accurate with your empathy
The crucial second aspect of empathy, Empathic Accuracy, helps you identify and understand emotions in yourself and others. This skill can make your experience of empathy much more precise and workable!
Let’s revisit the six aspects so that we can understand where Empathic Accuracy fits into the larger picture:
- Emotion Contagion: Before empathy can take place, you need to sense that an emotion is occurring – or that an emotion is expected of you. There is currently great debate about how emotion contagion occurs, and how we realize that emotions are required from us, but it is agreed that the process of empathy is dependent upon our capacity to feel and share emotions. Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill.
- Empathic Accuracy: This is your ability to accurately identify and understand emotional states and intentions in yourself and others.
- Emotion Regulation: In order to be an effective empath, you’ve got to develop the ability to understand, regulate, and work with your own emotions; you’ve got to be self-aware. When you can clearly identify and regulate your own emotions, you’ll tend to be able to function skillfully in the presence of strong emotions (your own and others’), rather than being overtaken or knocked out of commission by them.
- Perspective Taking: This skill helps you imaginatively put yourself in the place of others, see situations through their eyes, and accurately sense what they might be feeling – so that you can understand what others might want or need.
- Concern for Others: Empathy helps you connect with others, but the quality of your response depends upon your ability to care about others as well. When you feel emotions with others, accurately identify those emotions, regulate them in yourself, and take the perspective of others – your sensitive concern will help you engage with them in a way that displays your care and compassion.
- Perceptive Engagement: This skill allows you to make perceptive decisions based upon your empathy and to respond or act (if necessary) in a way that works for others. Perceptive engagement can be considered the pinnacle of empathic skill, because it combines your capacity to sense and accurately identify the emotions of others, regulate your own emotions, take the perspective of others, focus on them with care and concern, and then do something skillful based upon your perceptions. Notably, in perceptive engagement, you’ll often do something for another that would not work for you at all – and might not even be in your best interests. Perceptive engagement is about the other person’s needs.
These six aspects of empathy build upon each other, and while Emotion Contagion tends to occur instinctively, the rest are more intentional and can be developed (or calmed down in the case of hyper-empathy) with the empathic skills you’ll learn in The Art of Empathy.
In this excerpt from The Art of Empathy, we’ll look at Empathic Accuracy in more depth.
Empathic Accuracy[i] is your empathic capacity to accurately identify emotions, thoughts, and intentions in yourself and others. This is an interior skill, an interactional skill, and an observational skill – and the quality of your empathic accuracy is dependent upon your own internal emotional awareness and your capacity for emotional self-regulation.
Emotions are a world unto themselves, and I call them a language. In order to learn the language of emotions, it’s very important to have a rich emotional vocabulary with plenty of words for differing intensities of emotions.
I provide you with a free Emotional Vocabulary List on this site so that you can become sensitive to and accurate about differing emotional states – because if you know which emotions you or others are feeling, and you can gauge the intensity of those emotions, your empathic work will be much more precise and skillful.
But if you don’t know which emotions are occurring, or in what intensity, you’ll continually miss important social cues about what people are thinking and feeling and what their intentions are.
Emotional awareness and Empathic Accuracy are crucial to skilled empathy.
It’s also important that you know how to work with each emotion in yourself. If you don’t, your empathic accuracy could be compromised. For instance, you might accurately pick up the emotions or intentions of another through Emotion Contagion, but due to a pre-existing problem with your own emotion regulation skills, you might get the entirely wrong idea about what’s going on.
For instance, let’s imagine that you have sensed fear in another, yet due to an issue inside yourself, you might intensify that fear into anxiety or panic, and then imagine that you have picked up those emotions instead. Without realizing it, you may incorrectly attribute emotions, thoughts, intentions, and reactions to another based on your own difficulties with and reactions to that emotion (or that intensity of emotion).
The way to gauge your Empathic Accuracy is both very simple and infinitely hard: You ask people if what you’re sensing from them is true. This is simple, because it’s a very easy thing to ask, “Are you feeling (afraid, anxious, angry, sad, happy, ashamed) right now?” – yet it can be infinitely hard because people can be unaware of their own emotional states, embarrassed or confused by emotions, or unwilling to admit to what they’re feeling (worry not – we’ve got a number of ways around this in Chapter 8 – Empathic Communication).
For empaths, this lack of emotional transparency is a very sticky problem – because even though we’re surrounded by emotions, we tend to grow up without any clear or workable understanding of them. In fact, many of the things we learn about emotions are so backward that it’s amazing we can function at all.
There are no negative emotions
For instance, the idea that there are negative or positive emotions is a completely unempathic and unhelpful fallacy. Our deeply unfortunate tendency to divide emotions into positive and negative categories has dreadful consequences in our everyday lives – such that we focus most of our attention on the supposedly positive emotions of happiness and joy while ignoring, suppressing, trying to change, or running from the supposedly negative emotions (for instance, anger, hatred, fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, envy, jealousy, rage, depression, etc.).
This misguided pathologizing of normal emotions actually makes us less able to work with emotions in intelligent ways – and it creates an empathic capacity that is stilted and incomplete. There are no negative emotions.
Luckily, in spite of the problems in our emotional and empathic training, it’s fairly easy to become more empathically accurate internally, because it’s a simple process of tuning into your interior life and learning to articulate between your different emotional states. This can take a bit of practice if you’ve had bad training in one or more emotional categories (sadly, most of us have bad training in pretty much every emotion except happiness!), but it’s actually fairly easy to become more accurate about your own emotions once you have an empathic understanding of what emotions are and what emotions do.
However, the relationship others have with their own emotions can make empathic accuracy in interactions more difficult – and many empathic people grow up without much confidence in their skills because they’ve been told repeatedly “I’m NOT mad! You’re projecting!” Or “We don’t talk about grief in this family.” Or “Why would I be afraid? There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Or “I’m not laughing at you; I’m laughing with you.”
This everyday emotional subterfuge, emotional bait-and-switch, emotional squelching, and straight up emotional dishonesty are common everyday behaviors that can make Empathic Accuracy very hard to master[ii].
Another impediment to Empathic Accuracy is the unfortunate focus that’s been placed on reading facial expressions and body language as if they provide precise or reliable cues. Simply put, they don’t.
You can’t always take facial expressions at face value
Frowns don’t always signal anger, yawns don’t always signal boredom (or fatigue), looking up and away doesn’t always signal lying, looking down doesn’t always signal insecurity, smiles don’t always signal happiness, tears don’t always signal sadness, fidgeting doesn’t always signal nervousness, and crossed arms don’t always signal anger.
Faces and bodies are as individual as fingerprints, and while there are some things you can generalize about in regard to the bodies and faces of others, you can’t really know what a gesture or expression means until you know another for a while – or unless you ask.
Body language and facial expressions can provide a wonderful entrée into the empathic space of others, and we’ll focus on ways to utilize these signals in our communication. However, our focus won’t be on discovering secrets people think they’re hiding or becoming all-powerful body-language experts. Instead, we’ll learn to incorporate body language in a nonthreatening way to open conversations about emotions and empathy.
And I mean that literally, “When you curve your body downward and sigh out loud, it seems to me that you’re feeling discouraged, or maybe really tired, or both. Is that what’s going on?” Or, “When you use very short sentences and don’t look at me when you speak, it seems that you’re feeling impatient and frustrated with me. Is that true?” Body language and facial expressions are extremely important, but Empathic Accuracy is built, moment by moment, in empathic interactions.
What others mean and what they’re signaling is individual, and the key to understanding those signals cannot be found in a book – you’ve got to get out and interact, make mistakes, be vulnerable and curious, and be deeply interested in the individual ways that others signal their emotional states.
Empathic Accuracy is developed in interactions – in honest, vulnerable, and curious empathic interactions with yourself as you learn to identify your own emotional states, and with others as you learn the multitude of ways that individuals signal their emotions and intentions. In The Art of Empathy, we explore many ways to develop and nurture those kinds of honest and vulnerable interactions.
[i]“Empathic accuracy is the measure of one’s skill in empathic inference [your ability to read the emotions, thoughts, and intentions of others](p. 2).” From Ickes, W. (ed) (1997). Empathic Accuracy. New York, NY: Guildford Press.
[ii] Being a fiercely stubborn and scathing social critic helps cut through this endless emotional subterfuge, though I have no idea how I would know this, since my own childhood was one of delicate good manners and rainbow fairy tales, snort.
In Part 3: Emotion Regulation