When people think of empathy, they tend to see it as a soft skill — as a yielding and pleasing kind of behavior. They think: If you listen to me and agree with me and make me feel good, that’s empathy. If you fix my problems and soothe everything, that’s empathy. Empathy equals niceness.
But there’s actually a deeper form of empathy that transcends mere niceness and helps us engage with people across lines of discord, difficulty, pain, and trouble. I call this a full-bodied empathy, and it is a deeply emotive process that makes room for things that that don’t feel good and don’t seem particularly nice.
In this deeper form of empathy, you don’t jump in to fix things right away. Instead, you create a space for people to sit with problems and conflicts until they are able to find the brilliance (their own brilliance; not yours) sitting just beneath it.
This deeper form of empathy requires patience and emotional awareness, but it also requires a basic trust in people’s ability to deal with conflict and to listen closely to their own emotions. And this deep form of empathy doesn’t look like niceness, because it works in a different way than niceness does.
The mythologist Michael Meade has written beautifully about the difference between niceness and deep empathy in this piece on the First, Second, and Third Layers of human interaction. This excerpt is from The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart by Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade (Harper Collins, 1992).
If the First Layer of human interaction is the common ground of manners, kind speech, polite greeting, and working agreements; if the Third Layer is the area of deeply shared humanity, the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, of the underlying, fundamental oneness of human love, justice, and peaceful coexistence; then the Second Layer is the territory of anger, hatred, wrath, rage, outrage, jealousy, envy, contempt, disgust, and acrimony.
It is the Via Negativa, the field of Conflict, the plain of Discord, the hills of Turmoil. And, the Second Layer always exists between the First Layer the Third….
All three layers are necessary for a society to continue, for a relationship to endure, for an individual to endure….
We know that the decency of the First Layer must be kept intact most of the time, for the sake of social survival. The First Layer doesn’t have to carry true emotions, hard-learned insights, or personal authenticity. But if an individual or a society stays only in the surface level of life, a huge shadow starts to grow in the Second Layer.
— from pages 285-286 in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart
As I look around at many of the ideas and teaching on empathy today, I see a lot of First Layer focus where people try to create working agreements and social ease with politeness. It is the empathy of friendliness, agreement, and niceness. It is very sweet and lovely, but it isn’t deep empathy.
And what I notice is that this niceness-based empathy tends to bring forward an undercurrent of hostility and trouble that shocks people and throws them off their game. They feel betrayed, and try to get back to that First Layer, but that’s not really workable once the Second Layer has emerged.
I see this behavior continually on the Internet, where people will be commenting on a funny video of a cat or something, and some random person will start fighting and pull the entire thread into chaos. For instance, this hilarious play-by-play story of an Internet thread war that erupted on a post about cake(!) is priceless: Rainbow Cake Recipe Inspires Comment Apocalypse.
When the Second Layer emerges, people tend to lose their empathy for each other, and some will get sucked into a Second Layer pile-up of escalating rudeness and cruelty, but almost no one knows how to get to the Third Layer.
You’ll often see people trying like mad to get the situation back to the nice and polite First Layer (Can’t we all just get along?), or you’ll see people trumpeting the Second Layer as if it is the most honest way to be, or as if it’s the best way to get a point across (these people tend to disparage politeness, and they often hurl the insult Tone Police at anyone who challenges them).
But almost no one knows how to get to the Third Layer. That’s what deep empathy is for.
Michael Meade continues:
The population of the Second Layer includes a high percentage of giants, hags, trolls, boxers, bears, street criminals, cops, vultures, gargoyles, streetwalkers, and outraged motorists. The sidewalks are cracked, the stores are closed, the lights don’t work, and there is no one who’ll listen to you.
When people avoid entering this territory, they begin attracting shadowy figures who will one day explode into their life. Or, like a TV evangelist, they are completely drawn to the figures of the night. Cultures that try to shut out the Second Layer wind up with overcrowded prisons, high crime rates, huge black markets, and, finally, riots in the streets.
There’s more bad news. The only way out of the First Layer, the only way to break the spell of niceness when it has shifted from ensuring life’s continuance to insulting life’s purpose is to enter the Second Layer.
Furthermore — and don’t blame this on me — the only way to find the next location of the Third Layer is by traversing the battle-scarred, dog-infested terrain of the Second Layer.
— from pages 287-288 in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart
The Third Layer — which is where “deeply shared humanity, the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, of the underlying, fundamental oneness of human love, justice, and peaceful coexistence” exists — cannot be located through niceness and politeness of the First Layer. The First Layer is necessary, but it has its limitations.
The Third Layer also cannot be located if people merely get stuck in the Second Layer and throw their intense emotions (and blame) all over the place. The Third Layer can only be located when people have the patience and the skill to navigate through the intense emotions of the Second Layer — to listen to them, to work with them, to engage with their ancient wisdom, and to become fully fluent in the language of emotions.
This process of locating the Third Layer clearly doesn’t happen every day. But when it does, and when combatants can learn how to transform the power of their intense emotions into the power of vulnerability, and how to listen to and honor the truth of their intense emotions, miracles can happen. I’ve seen it. I’ve been to the Third Layer. It’s a magical place.
But politeness and the pastel-colored empathy of niceness can’t lead you there. Only deep empathy — which gives you the patience and the skills to traverse the battle-scarred terrain of the Second Layer — only deep empathy can do that. That’s the difference.
That’s also the art of empathy.
About Michael Meade
Michael Meade works regularly in areas of conflict to help people find their way to the Third Layer. He’s a national treasure, and if you have a chance to take a workshop with him or support his work, do it! You can learn more about Michael’s work at his Mosaic Multicultural Foundation.