Compassion is Healing — Empathy is "Perspective Taking"

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"My true religion is kindness."—Thich Nhat Hanh

"No need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart, is the temple; and your philosophy is kindness." —His Holiness the Dalai Lama


The core emotional experience of compassion is allowing another's heart to take up temporary residence inside of ours. Mutual compassion would have the heart sharing fully and willing returned. While calling compassion a form of empathy, literally meaning to feel with another, is a wonderful start, greater depth of attuning to the emotional meaning of another's experience is essential. The moment your heart is touched by another, that your presence evokes another's presence, when you bring your Thou that invites another's Thou to come forward, is the translucent encounter. It is in this person-to-person encounter, as precious and rich an intimate meeting as known to human beings, that we see most clearly with our hearts in hearing the soul's call.

Perspective taking-Perceptual, cognitive and affective empathy

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Empathy is usually thought of as purely an emotional experience, one of feeling with another as best as we can sense being in their shoes, skin and heart. This is not sympathy in feeling sorry or pity for another, their feelings and situation. This is not exactly compassion either, a deeper sense of affective empathy that means "to suffer" another's troubles and feel another's sorrow. Being able to empathize is actually three interrelated abilities: to perceive and be aware of another's situation (perceptual empathy); to take another's point of view through thinking (cognitive empathy); and to feel with what another is feeling (affective empathy). Each of these forms of empathy taps the ability of "taking perspectives," that is, putting yourself inside of another's experience, whether it is in what that other person sees and hears, thinks and feels.

Illustrations often provide greater clarity. Noticing a parent at emotional loose ends with a youngster running around in a store or on public transportation, you might casually and lightly say, "They sure are a handful at that age, with all that energy to burn." You are engaged in perceptual empathy by perceiving the situation the parent is facing. If you strike up a brief conversation and the parent shares that they have used several approaches with their child to little effect, you might say, "I get how difficult it would be for you to know how to set limits given how many ways you've used with so little success to date." Here you are using cognitive empathy, that is, using your thinking to place yourself in their shoes. Furthermore, you could say, "It feels is a bit unsettling in sensing your rising frustration." In saying this you tap affective empathy by being able to imagine and feel what the other is feeling. So long as each of these forms of empathy is relatively accurate and accepted by the parent, it is likely that the parent feels kindly understood and supported in facing a difficult situation with their rambunctious child.

Some people can imagine what another is seeing and hearing regarding any condition, circumstance and situation, and still remain with their own sensory experience as well. This is perceptual empathy. When you can see and hear another's set of circumstances and perspective, it can make a world of difference.

Some people can shift their thinking perspective and perceive another's point-of-view in that other's experience with sufficient detachment to cognitively reconstruct another's emotional experience while keeping their own viewpoint. This is called cognitive empathy. Imagine a parent making cognitive sense of their son or daughter being so overwhelmed with extracurricular activities that their school work and health suffers, all while still collaborating on healthier ways to balance their time and commitments and without punishing, enabling or apologizing for them.

Some people can join in sensing, imagining and feeling what another is feeling in a specific situation. This is called affective empathy and can easily be seen when people cry at the movies or in reading a book, when people sincerely emotionally commiserate with a depressed friend and feel their friend's melancholy, and when family members are laughing, elated and joyous at the success of a parent, son or daughter, brother or sister, niece or nephew.

When perceptual, cognitive and affective empathy are all present, the giver and the given are one in a shared seeing and hearing perception of the situation, taking the other's point-of-view and emotional resonance. This is surely one possible understanding for author Robert Heinlein's invention of the term to "grock" something, in his classic science fiction book, Stranger in a Strange Land: to fully know in "standing under," and inside another's perceiving of a situation, point-of-view and emotional experience. Through tapping all three forms of perspective taking, along with a deeper compassion, opens up room for a shared unity of humankind as a way of being in the world and not only a passing gesture.

Perspective taking, or the ability to use one's role-taking abilities to imagine the psychological viewpoint of another person, begins to developmentally be available and come "on-line" after age five when the child will correctly be able to imagine another person's perspective. Influential cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead called it "taking the role of the other." Perspective taking requires going outside of one's usual self-centeredness or egocentricity to view the world from another's perspective or vantage point. This empathetic capacity most commonly takes the three forms we are examining: what another person perceives, what another person thinks and what another person feels. Such perspective taking naturally may lead to imaging what another person, so perceiving, thinking and feeling, would likely be inclined to do. With perspective taking the possible or resulting actions can now make perceptual, thinking and emotional sense, and thereby be understandable.

Psychological researchers David Aderman and his colleagues found when people are asked to imagine themselves in another's situation, they are less likely to blame that person for their plight and are more likely to respond with compassion. These researchers summarize their findings: "It would appear that empathizing [i.e., perspective taking] observers consider compassion the only just response to undeserved suffering." 1 Natural or human-made disasters and catastrophes are well known to bring forth people's best qualities of offering themselves in highly practical service, help, charity, kindness and warm humanity. Not only does this mean to take-on the perspective of the other person, but to begin to fully appreciate another person's distinctive situation, viewpoint and emotional state, along with finding something similar if not identical within ourselves.

Psychological researchers Cowan, Cowan and Mehta discuss the challenges of empathy within couple relationships as more a failure of imagination than a failure of words. Beyond discussing the thinking and emotional components of empathy, they mention the benefit of following an empathetic response with behavior consistent with that expressed empathy. For example, when one partner is feeling stressed over the demands of home and child responsibilities and expresses how overwhelmed it all feels, the other partner can offer an empathetic response and show behavioral support in helping in dinner preparation and the children's homework.

These same researchers also recommend that both partners experience empathy to have it be most advantageous. Continuing with our example, later the stressed out partner can learn about their mate's day and return an empathetic response such as, "Now that I've heard the day you had, I can see the unending problems you faced and how difficult they were to handle, and it pains me to notice you being so shell-shocked from it." Once again, the follow-up in behavior consistent with this empathetic response might take the form of offering the shell-shocked partner some hot cider and then taking a walk together. Being upset or stressed ourselves or being in the midst of an argument can easily block an empathetic response. This is precisely when a couple can pause to ask open-ended, search questions about where these feelings arise from and what each specifically wants from the other as an empathetic response. 2

"High perspective taking" is likely to be characteristic of effective leaders and successful people functioning in roles that demand highly developed social skills, such as salespersons, entrepreneurs and psychotherapists. High abilities in perspective taking includes the three aspects of accurately being able to both understand and respond to life situations, being able to see a situation from many perspectives, and perceiving another's viewpoint in depth to gain a full understanding of their perspective. Perspective taking skills is related to better understanding others and may make people high on perspective taking abilities better able to discern what information would be best discussed in creating solutions to tasks at hand. When we can honestly capture the unique reality of a fellow human being, we attune ourselves to our shared humanness. This shared humanity facilitates all three forms of empathy: their experience, perspective and emotionality.

True compassion

Compassion means "to suffer with" and this is a most difficult thing to willingly expose your heart to. To join another in their sorrow, pain, suffering and loss, what is called compassion, quite regularly takes our having gone through many such experiences ourselves. It usually takes our world to be cracked wide open with a powerful disappointment, disillusionment, accident, chronic disease or death.

To fully experience and move through our own pain, suffering and sorrow is the critical doorway to offer open-hearted presence and deep empathetic resonance with another's pain, suffering and sorrow. This is to inhabit and experience true compassion. All else, including pity, sympathy, regret and feigned empathy, may reflect the yearning to be compassionate, yet we know it's at best a pale shadow. We know when the real thing is present-it's in their eyes, being and presence.


1. David Aderman, Sharon S. Brehm and Lawrence B. Katz, "Empathic Observation of an Innocent Victim: The Just World Revisited." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29, 1974, pages 342-347, quote: page 345.

2. Phillip A. Cowan, Carolyn Pape Cohen and Neera Mehta, "Feeling Like Partners." Greater Good, II (2), Fall / Winter 2005-6, pages 16-19.

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