The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, Part 4: Perspective Taking

Learning to see and feel from the perspective of others

Your Perspective Taking ability helps you imaginatively see and feel things from the perspectives of others. This skill is crucial to your ability to empathize skillfully; good Perspective Taking can help you understand what others want and need.

Let’s revisit the six aspects so that we can understand where Perspective Taking fits into the larger picture:

  1. 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.
  2. Empathic Accuracy: This is your ability to accurately identify and understand emotional states and intentions in yourself and others.
  3. Emotion Regulation: In order to empathize effectively, 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 Perspective Taking.

Perspective Taking

Skilled empathy helps you take the perspective of others and to imagine what life feels like for them – how they feel, how they approach situations, what their intentions are, and how they’ll respond to others and to circumstances.

When you correctly take the perspective of others, you’ll often imagine the emotions that others might be feeling (or might soon feel in response to an action you might take), rather than directly sharing those emotions.

Some researchers make a sharp distinction between affective (emotional) empathy (directly feeling the same or similar emotion in concurrence with another) and cognitive (thinking) empathy (the capacity to understand the emotion of another without currently sharing it).

This distinction is key to some areas of empathy theory (it’s also the same distinction people make between the interchangeable words empathy and sympathy), but I don’t find it to be valid in actual practice.1 It can also lead people to exile certain people from empathy, and that is not okay.

I’ve focused instead on Emotion Contagion as the direct, emotional dimension of empathy, and on Perspective Taking as the somewhat detached thinking aspect; however, I don’t see them as distinct or separable abilities. I see your capacity to take the perspective of others as totally dependent upon your ability to feel, share, and understand emotions.

It’s not likely that you would be able to skillfully take the perspective of others unless you already had the capacity to feel and understand emotions in the first place.

Skilled Perspective Taking helps you see things clearly from another’s standpoint

When you successfully take the perspective of others, you essentially adopt their demeanor, attitudes, expectations, emotions, and intentions – you put yourself in their shoes so that you can see the world from their perspective and understand what they might do next (or what they might wish for).

Skillful Perspective Taking certainly relies upon your ability to share emotions with others, but it also relies upon your Empathic Accuracy and your capacity to regulate emotions in yourself so that you can work with anything that might upset you, and quickly refocus yourself on what is happening for the other person (or animal).

In Perspective Taking, the point is not to ask yourself what you would do in the place of others; it’s to try and understand what they would do. If your Empathic Accuracy and your Emotion Regulation skills are strong, you’ll have the emotional range and depth you need to imagine attitudes, expectations, and intentions that may be very different from your own.

There’s also a wonderful Einfühlung aspect to Perspective Taking – a feeling into – an aesthetic, literary capacity to embody characters and imbue them with life, hopes, dreams, wishes, and attitudes.

With your Einfühlung skill, you bring all parts of yourself to the process of trying to understand how others might feel and respond.

The magical world of fiction

If you have difficulty with Perspective Taking, there’s a delightful solution: fiction!

Reading fiction (and watching drama) has been found to increase empathic skills throughout your lifespan2 because dramatic fiction requires that you become an emotionally- and empathically-invested participant in the stories you read or watch.

Fiction can help you develop all six aspects of empathy no matter how old you are, and if your empathy training in childhood was not wonderful, you can still develop your empathy today by intentionally entering into the empathic world of fiction.

Storytelling and fiction are vital to every aspect of empathy development

When you can see fiction as intentional empathy training, consider the quality of fiction you read or watch now. The emotional and empathic training you’ll receive from a rude comedy is much different than the emotional and empathic training you’ll receive from a heroic adventure or a quiet story about relationships.

As you look at the quality of the fiction you consume, think about it empathically as well as thematically. What kind of emotional and empathic training are you receiving from your fiction?

Stories are delicious food for humans and their empathic skills. Does your current fiction diet offer you excellent empathic and emotional nutrition?

1. I have deep concerns about the way this distinction is being used to sort people into greater or lesser levels of humanity. For instance, in his book Zero Degrees of Empathy (2012), the British psychopathologist Simon Baron-Cohen categorizes autistic people as being affectively empathic yet cognitively impaired in empathy, and he places psychopaths on the opposite end of this continuum (where psychopaths allegedly have no capacity to empathize affectively, but can do so cognitively).

This theorizing is deeply alarming, both in its willingness to dehumanize people with psychopathy (which is a rare condition, and not completely understood) – and to continually exclude people on the Autism Spectrum from the realm of normal humanity. As a disability rights advocate and friend of many autistic youth and adults, I can’t state strongly enough how dangerous this theory is to the lives of autistic people, who are often wildly empathic rather than less so – both cognitively and affectively.

As a hyper-empathic person, it is very easy to see that people on the Autism Spectrum are absolutely empathic (and often hyper-empathic), though their sensory processing differences (and the terrible emotional training that most of us receive) may make their ability to decipher social cues difficult.

My problem with the categories of affective and cognitive empathy is certainly based on discrimination – in that they are used to classify people as more or less than human, but it’s also based on empathic awareness of the actual processes of empathy. In my experience, affective and cognitive empathy are not separate or separable states; rather, I see cognitive empathy as a function of affective empathy, in that you can’t effectively perform the process that some people identify as cognitive empathy unless you already have the capacity to feel what’s going on.

In my view, the capacity to separate oneself from the direct feeling and to stand away from the direct experience (and to view it from a kind of emotional eagle’s-eye view) is a function of Emotion Regulation and Perspective Taking added to a pre-existing capacity for Emotion Contagion. Simply put: If you can “cognitively” appreciate the emotional perspective of another, I propose that you already have the “affective” capacity to recognize, share, and understand emotions.

2. See Bal, P.M. & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8 (1) and
Gabriel. S. & Young, A.F. (2012). Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis. Psychological Science 22 (8).

In Part 5Concern for Others


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