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Have you ever wondered why conversations with some people leave you feeling depleted while with others you feel liberated and uplifted? One explanation might be that with the former you felt noticed, heard, understood and accepted. With the former you might well have felt overlooked, misunderstood and judged-usually unfavourably. There can be many explanations for the phenomenon of feeling liberated or crushed by a conversation but one such goes to the heart of empathic intelligence.
Based on the insights of brain-mind theorists such as Antonio Damasio and others, the concept of empathic intelligence aims to capture, among other contributing qualities, the dynamic between thinking and feeling which occurs in many forms of mental processing. It is perhaps best illustrated in an example of interpersonal engagement. In an empathic dialogue, the participants are engaging deeply at an emotional and cognitive level with their own thoughts and feelings simultaneously with monitoring the psychic landscape of the other. Tone of voice, emotional modulations as much as the content of the conversation is attended to intuitively and with open receptivity. In such cases, the empathy fueling the intelligence reflects an act of heartfelt, thoughtful imagination. Participants are opening up possibilities in the dialogue, modulating their responses in light of what they are hearing, generating ideas or responses, even anticipating how a response will be received and adjusting it in accord with their intentions. In effect, they are improvising the conversation as it progresses. The dialogue is a creation generated by the participants seeking to explore possibilities rather than simply repeating the known.
The other contributing qualities to an empathic dialogue are the application of imagination, self-awareness, attunement to feelings and their management, reflection and linguistic virtuosity which enables one to readily access to apt words and phrases. Hence, a deeply engaged dialogue of such nature can be both tiring and exhilarating.
So what could be liberating about a process which demands your close attention, an ability to decentre and focus on another, a readiness to imagine another’s world while recognizing that you can only hypothesize or speculate that that is? How could that possibly be liberating and enlightening? I’ll explain how then address the practicalities of the process.
It is perhaps a phenomenon of human development that the process of attending to others in an empathically attuned way has the welcome but unexpected consequence of developing the self. In listening to others, observing their facial expressions, tuning to their voice and its modulations, processing their words (or other forms of symbolization such as art or music), maintaining a non-judgmental disposition, we seemingly open up new pathways in our own minds. While they are affected and often affirmed through such a mutually constructed engagement, we are likewise affected and even transformed because our existing patterns of thought and feeling are expanded and re-shaped. So while it can be emotionally and mentally challenging to attune to another, respond to them, critique and absorb or reject new patterns of being and experiencing, it can also have an enlightening or uplifting effect. It is as if oxygen is pumped through dormant pathways making us feel more alive.
If the process is so rewarding, why doesn’t everyone engage in to all the time? For a start, it is very demanding to submit to this complex process and it can’t be sustained too long without respite. The mind, like the body, needs rest from challenging work-outs. Rest, reflection and contemplation help the mind to sort out the worth of experiences, embedding those which are productive and pruning those which are not. Practitioners of empathic intelligence need to be attuned to their own thoughts and feelings such that they assist that refining process. Empathic intelligence is a more complex concept than can be outlined here but some aspects are highlighted.
It is an outcome of offering others empathic attunement that they sometimes develop unrealistic expectations of how readily it is available. It is so pleasurable to be truly recognized, mirrored and affirmed that practitioners in settings such as counselling, teaching and coaching need to know how to ensure that those with whom they work develop independence over time. With practice and experience, it is possible to develop the right kinds of boundaries to maximize effects and avoid burn-out.
The group of humans who come to mind as applying empathy almost intuitively and readily are new mothers. The attunement and mutuality they develop with their new-born is essential for the infant’s growth, well-being, sense of self and eventual independence. Mothers who engage empathically with their infants experience deep love for and attachment with their child and feelings of both exhilaration and fatigue. The attention and physical care they offer the infant, their mirroring of and responses to the child’s feelings and communicative signals are mutually pleasurable and affirming, while personally demanding. The rewards and the demands play out repeatedly. In adult settings, empathic intelligence reactivates aspects of early mother-infant bonding and attachment, necessarily modulated by the different purposes of the approach in social or educative settings.
At the heart of all this is a particular value system which affirms both the individuality of each person and their need to be socialized to engage with others in ways which balance personal and social needs. While empathic intelligence does make considerable demands on the intellectual and emotional resources of its practitioners, as argued here, it is not entirely an altruistic pursuit. Provided quick returns on the psychic investment are not expected – sometimes they are not even readily apparent – for those satisfied with long-term rewards, if any, and those able to engage fully in deeply inter/intra-subjective experiences, the rewards can be feelings of self-efficacy, psychic expansion, increased self and other-awareness and quiet personal satisfaction. Having said that, both ends of the emotional spectrum from exhilaration and liberation to uncertainty, apprehension and fatigue are part of the deal. It does take robust psychic resilience to function empathically and few of us have that all the time. However, memories of the most positive end of the spectrum, an ability to withstand the less favourable expects and alignment between the values of service to others and self-development can fuel commitment to the practice.
This is an article from issue one of New Philosopher magazine. To read all the articles grab a copy of the 132-page launch issue by subscribing now.
Roslyn Arnold is an Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney and works as an education consultant mentoring senior executives in universities and schools. Roslyn was an academic in the Faculty of Education and Social Work from 1974 until 2004 and was the recipient of a University of Sydney Teaching Excellence Award. She was subsequently Dean of Education, Head of School at the University of Tasmania and Professor of Strategic Partnerships.