was successfully added to your cart.

Subscribe to our newsletter

& get a copy of our new e-book
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Empathy Also Affects Interpersonal Relationships

By Alexandra Main, Professor, University of California Merced

Compassion Heart

Psychology research on empathy typically focuses on the internal experience of the empathizer. However, this focus on the intrapersonal aspects of empathy has been to the detriment of developing an understanding of the interpersonal aspects of empathy. After all, with whom would we empathize if not another person? My colleagues and I have argued that empathy is an interactive social process that depends not only on our own abilities to empathize but also on the openness or resistance of our social partner to empathize with.

Empathy Helps with the Recognition of Others’ Emotions

This idea of empathy as an interpersonal process was demonstrated in a clever study by Professors Jamil Zaki (Stanford University) and Kevin Ochsner (Columbia University). Research participants watched video recordings of individuals telling emotional stories in either an emotionally expressive or neutral manner. Participants who scored highly on a questionnaire measuring empathy were more accurate in labeling the storytellers’ emotions, but only when storytellers were emotionally expressive. These findings suggest that successful empathy depends on both the responsivity of the perceiver and how well a social partner communicates a willingness to be empathized with.

Even so, at times our attempts to empathize are met with resistance. Consider the phrase “I know how you feel” — a statement with the intention of connecting with someone who is upset. And yet, this seemingly innocuous statement is sometimes met with anger or resentment:  “You have no idea how I feel!” Such “empathic failures” reflect a second fundamental principle of empathy that is not often discussed – empathy involves more than the passive feeling of what someone else feels. Rather, it involves curiosity and an active communication of this curiosity.

Empathy Helps with Conflict Resolution

One of our own recent studies supports this idea. University of California, Merced Professor Alexandra Main analyzed video recordings of contentious parent-teen discussions. Parents demonstrating curiosity and validation of — though not necessarily agree with — their teen’s perspective were better able to resolve the conflict.

One might think that our view means that you must adopt the other person’s perspective or convince them to take your own. Take the recent pushback against empathy – mainly among the energized political left – that resistance is key to progress and that trying to empathize with the other side is futile. People may feel that their attempts to empathize are pointless because they do not immediately understand how someone could vote for a candidate from another party or support a cause that flies in the face of their core values. Such dismissal of empathy is understandable but reflects the common misconception that empathy means the ultimate end state is an agreement between two parties. However, considering empathy as an ongoing process can re-motivate our efforts by opening a productive dialogue rather than a combative debate.

Empathy Stimulates the Sharing of Information

A powerful example of this principle comes from research in medical settings. UC Berkeley public health and biomedical ethics researcher Professor Jodi Halpern studied the timing of physicians’ empathic responses to patients’ emotions. She found that patients often provide superficial information to their physicians – at least at first. However, physicians who communicate sustained curiosity about their patients’ situations promote increased patient trust, often leading to disclosure of important information relevant for diagnoses and treatment.  Linguistics research also finds that conversations about emotional events are more successful when people appropriately time their empathy. Thus, empathizing is a process that requires us to consciously persist in our efforts to understand one another.

Empathy is not easy; it is effortful. Empathy is not passive; it is active. Empathy is not static; it is a process. While it is tempting to throw up our hands and say that it’s not worth empathizing with those who think differently from us, keep these things in mind:

  1. when you want someone to empathize with you, make sure you communicate your emotions or position in a way that is conversational rather than confrontational,
  2. when listening to someone else’s perspective, communicate interest and curiosity and an openness to learn more, rather than waiting for your turn to talk, and
  3. remember that fully appreciating someone’s perspective doesn’t happen right away, so be patient with the process.

The difficulties our society faces will persist until our scientific and public communities shift from focusing on an individual’s experience of empathy to a deeper understanding of how empathy connects us to others.

About Alexandra Main, Professor, University of California Merced

Alternative Text

Professor Alexandra Main received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from UC Berkeley in 2013 and completed her postdoctoral work in Health Psychology at UC Merced. Her research focuses on the social and emotional development of children and adolescents within the family context. Specifically, she is interested in the development of empathy and emotion regulation and how these processes are shaped by temperament, family, and culture. She is currently working on projects investigating communication of empathy between parents and adolescents, how cultural orientations influence family emotional communication, and the implications of these processes for psychological and physical health.

Alexandra Main on the Web
More on: Marital Conflict, Parenting
Latest update: January 12, 2018