Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Empathic Feeling, Empathic Understanding and Empathic Praxis


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Epiphany post ahead. Possibly stating the obvious but as a model. I haven’t researched this to check.

So I am thinking empathy is multidimensional:

  1. Affective: I call it empathic feeling: to feel how someone else is feeling. This can happen without us understanding necessarily, but I suppose empathic understnading HELPS us feel, but does not automatically make us feel for another’s suffering. It’s also an attitude of choosing to allow yourself to care for another. Sometimes u suppress it to help someone (e.g. Surgeons)
  2. Cognitive: empathic understanding: a process of understanding how someone has come to feel a certain way, the why of how they got there, the why of how their journey got them to feel that particular way. A lot of what we do  n edu to promote empathy focuse on this dimension. But does it necessarily lead to full-on empathy? It may or may not. Because understanding is always interpretation (Gadamer) and as such, we only understand another persons story through our personal lens and history.  The more different another person is from us, the more ww need to concede that parts of them are not easily knowable to us, not because they cannot express it well, but because there is too much lived complexity that we cannot gain secondhand. It’s like living with a person who has depression. You don’t fully “get it” if you haven’t been depressed to that extent before. Men may never fully understand the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society, but when they seek to understand more, they will be able to act better.and when they act bettee, they will be able to understand more (see below).
  3. Action/skill: I wanna call this empathic praxis, actually. It’s about how our knowledge and reflection and feelings inform our action and vice versa. Skills and actions in this dimension include empathic listening, allyship (acting to support another in empathy even when we don’t fully know what they feel exactly). It is where we recognize that empathy with that other is important and we constantly seek to understand better, to listen more, to put ourselves in situations to help us understand better. Like living in a refugee camp (however temporarily). This is a risky business. So there is a lot of intentionality in wanting to do this. But the key thing is this attitude of caring to know more and therefore behaving in ways that make us learn more and then acting to make a difference

Does this sound like it makes sense to you? Am I missing something (other than examples!)? 

In all cases I retunr to what I said at a DML VC hangout. We shouldn’t seek shortcuts to developing or promoting empathy. It requires deep and sustained engagement from our hearts, minds and bodies. Any other dimensions?

P.S. Added later. Found an article about 3 types of empathy (similar but not exactly same). And this book chapter which I think is based on same theories. Quote:

The three dimensions of empathy are perspective taking, emotional dimensions, and a genuine concern for the welfare of the other 


  1. Truly fascinating, Maha, especially the praxis part of action & feeling feeding off of each other. I also picked up the idea from that Psychology Today link that what;s really worth appreciating is the interplay of these flavors of empathy. And that none of these are traits fixe din us, we can grow better in them all.


    I somewhat question if we can ever truly feel someone else’s pain, emotion- I think empathy is the *attempt* to do that, but unless we have experienced every influencing moment, pain, suffering, joy, abandonment, in someone’s life, I think we are aiming for as best an approximation as we can do. And this says, we are never quite there at full empathy, it’s like some Calculus limit that we may approach but never fully meet. That does not make it any less important, but to think we know fully every facet of another human is a bit presumptuous IMHO.

    None of that takes away from what you are outlining, that empathy is not a singular thing. I’d dad that the other key is how much you can temporarily step out of your own experiences, judgments, contexts to try to absorb someone else’s. That’s a huge limit.

    We can always, and should always try much harder.

    Thanks for making me thing, again, you are on a blogging roll.

    • Agree Alan – “it’s like some Calculus limit that we may approach but never fully meet”
      Makes complete sense. Maybe only twins who grew up together and have some kind of biological telepathy might approximate it very closely, but everyone else can only hope to try.
      It may be also useful to ask ourselves why empathy is something we should strive for, and if it’s a blanket goal, or if it can get in the way of us doing something more useful (like, again, surgeons won’t do a good job if they empathized; I speak from secondhand experience! So I don’t fully know even that). Is it helpful to empathize with our oppressor even when the oppressor does not (duh) empathize with us? And I struggle with this last one because I actually do that. I have in some instances not acted to defend myself or advocate for others, because I empathized with the person who was causing my own suffering and could potentially do the same to others (even when I knew they had done the same to others). Obviously if the aggression had been something truly horrendous like rape or murder I think I would have acted!!! But when it’s a microaggression or a small incidence of someone pulling their power on a less powerful person… when you know a lot about that person’s intersectionality… is forgiving them out of empathy (or whatever) necessarily a good thing, or are you feeding it? There’s of course the alternative solution to try to help THAT person, help the oppressor, see the error of their ways. Which is easy to do if it’s a REALLY micro micro micro aggression and you have a relationship where they might listen and not harm you for it.. but not necessarily a possibility open to everyone…
      Thanks for making me think, now that I’ve made you think 🙂

      • My only understanding of surgeons is via tv so with a grain of salt, I might differ slightly. A surgeon should not be doing empathy with a scalpel in hand, but why not during consultation or follow up, or maybe privately in reflection? To deny them all options of empathy seems oppressive!

        And as far as you way of empathasizing with someone who has wronged you, is that necessarily empathy or is it compassion, a way to react to a situation by seeking to understand their motives rather than rise up in defense.

        That might just be word games

        • Oh yeah. Surgeons CAN be empathetic outside the Operating Room. Becoz my husband is one and many of his friends… I know they can be. But less so than their knowledge would normally make them. Does that make sense? Even behaving empathetically in a consult they would suppress feelings. Psychiatrists must do the same or they would all become mentally ill, no?
          But a person can be empathetic about certain things or situations or towards certain ppl but not others. It’s complicated

          • Trying to get at gist of my lost comments. It as again some speculation of the grey overlap area of empathy / compassion. Again, I know no doctors first hand.

            I offered a story of my oldest brother, my parent’s first child, born severely mentally retarded, the story and then some Their first doctor gave what was the standard, medical advice- put the baby in a mental hospital, he can never have a normal life. My parents turned to a new doctor in the office (I think he was a fraternity brother of my fathers from university), Dr Kramer acted I believe with more empathy/understanding than the first doctor, and re-assured my mother she could care and love her child. He was our family pediatrician for 30+ years, including my sisters kids. I saw him at age 19, kind of weird sitting in the office as an adult.

            Of course pediatricians have a different relationship perhaps with patients than specialists like surgeons.

            It is of course complicated, as most thing human are, It makes it both interesting and challenging, right?

      • I’ve also empathized with the oppressor (and sucked up my losses) and I’m wondering how much of this “empathizing” was me seeing myself in the other. To attempt to feel how someone else is feeling is perhaps only to try to understand more deeply how we feel, to understand the me in me with the other in me and my desire to have the other feel me in them. If our whole is the sum of the interactions of our parts, then it’s in the human interactions through empathic praxis that our whole evolves. Is the caring to know more and learn more and make a difference, about self creation or the creation of self into a community and/or the creation/evolution/adaption of community?

        I agree with Simon’s post that our lives are intertextual. How much are we reading the narratives in search of selves (I am these characters)? How much are we reading ourselves into the narratives (I am becoming, desiring to be)? How does the act of reading the world and naming it, change it (Paulo Freire)? (Like defining empathy.)

        The other in me and me in the other. Empathy creates an “us.” (I know this requires a preposition–rather than “we,” and I’ll leave that to Keith Hamon to show how prepositions work here.)

    • Alan I would take it further. We are not even able to fully “know” ourselves . Let alone others.

      But crudely drawn lines/boundaries of power which are based on exploitation, ignorance, distancing, objectification, greed are easy to highlight.

      • I am wondering also of how much of empathy is about stepping outside of ourselves but also how much of it is in digging deep inside ourselves. We need to find the elements of another person’s suffering/feeling that we have in common and recognize the ones we don’t. I cannot possibly identify w being homosexual but can find elements of how it would feel to be discriminated against for who you are

        • I think you make a great point Maha. Going inside oneself is a lot of work and sometimes a scary place for people to go. It is much easier to look outwardly than truly feel what is happening inside oneself.

          Humans are wired to belong somewhere, anywhere, rather than be an outcast, alone in the world. I feel that the more one strays from the status quo of societal norms, the more discrimination they experience. Their work of getting to know themselves deeply and dare to be different from the pack shows tremendous courage. If we cannot empathize then we can certainly respect their stance to honor their authenticity to self.

          Empathically educating seems like a person must really commit to questioning all assumptions made about learners. But what about unconscious assumptions?

          • Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t (easy to look inside oneself, look outside oneself) – see my next post! About empathy as Luxury and empathic distance. Sometimes u don’t have luxury to think outside urself and sometimes u need distance to see urself…it depends!

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