Empathy is defined as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Notice that it doesn’t only say “the ability to recognize the feelings of others.” To emphasize sharing, I think a more accurate description of empathy is, “the ability to feel another person’s pain in your heart.”
Many times those who are best at being empathetic are those who have actually experienced very similar situations that cause pain in others. That means that the empathetic person has experience, but doesn’t stop there. In accord with their experience they are compelled to act with kindness. It’s not that you can’t have empathy without the experience and resulting pain, but it sure helps. Sometimes I see or hear others’ claim of empathy, but without the accompanying behavior. Sadly, some people who claim to be empathetic are cold, calculating, and even mean. As disappointing, business has adopted the term “empathy” as a disguise for customer need-finding as a means to generate revenue and maximize profit.
Of course empathy is not limited to feeling another’s pain, and may be equally exhibited by feeling happiness and joy over the successes of others. Celebration over the joy of others is just as beneficial as mourning with them over their reasons for pain. It’s just that it’s far easier to exhibit joy and celebrate with them than it is to absorb their pain even when doing so doesn’t heal their wounds. The point is, empathy is all about sharing or feeling some kind of beneficial emotion toward others. In other words, empathy is not about us, but about them. Empathy is an act of giving. That’s why publicly claiming to be empathetic is sort of missing the point, because being empathetic is proved only through ongoing action.
Empathy is much less about being an engineer and much more about being a nurse or a parent. For empathy to be more than a buzzword or tagline, it must be demonstrated through actual feelings, not just thinking, and have proactive positive actions and hopeful impact on those who may benefit from it.