The Power of Empathy

We often speak of the importance of empathy, both in healthcare and management circles – however moving from talk of theories to empathy ‘in the wild’ seems to be a much trickier proposition. For it involves the onerous task of metaphorically being able to step into someone else’s shoes. The reason why empathy is difficult in practice may be that it requires a ‘being’ and ‘doing’ element for someone to feel truly heard. The being element requires us putting our own stuff to the side – this means the ‘noise’ of our own world that we can carry into an encounter with others. We also have to be genuinely curious about what others are experiencing, and a real willingness to get alongside them as they explore it. Prof. Robert Elliott and colleagues use the analogy of a stepping into a child’s toy house – you have to ‘bend and stoop’ to see the world from their perspective. This perspective may be uncomfortable as it is not your surroundings but you still need to feel safe enough to sit with another and show interest in their situation. Importantly, empathy involves a doing component as well. This active part means ensuring we express in some physical way our empathy for others. This expression may involve what we say, how we engage in eye contact or body language, or simply to reflect that you comprehend what another is saying and that they are heard. 

In performance sport, empathy is certainly crucial between individuals to help build cohesive teams and squads (cohesion of course based on the latin cohaerere as ‘to stick together’ or form a bond). Perhaps even more importantly though is the empathy sportspeople show themselves. Performers have a tendency to identify what is absent rather than present in their abilities – it perhaps comes from years of scanning for what is ‘wrong’ and looking to correct it. The downside of course is that such individuals are socialised to be very hard on themselves, potentially undermining their own belief. Former rugby player Dylan Hartley sums the up this fragility by stating, ‘self-worth is so closely linked to athletic performance. I play, therefore I am’. Similarly ex-pro cyclist David Millar suggests the fusion of self-worth and performance erodes empathy – ‘The only thing that mattered to me was the racing, so if that wasn’t going well then my morale plummeted and self-doubt and self-pity took root’. In essence, athletes have little empathy for themselves unless performing successfully – the paradox of course is when they are going through a slump or injury is the exact time when empathy is most needed. Hartley sums up this need when he reflects, ‘your world contracts when you are recovering from a significant injury. If you are prone to self-doubt, or intense insecurity, your mental health, already delicate, can easily decline, quickly and savagely.’ Unfortunately athletes can ‘savage’ themselves during such moments, without any inclination for personal compassion. 

Empathy between and within individuals therefore is crucial for healthy lives and strong performances. The difficult thing however is developing an empathetic attitude towards oneself. Certainly an increased awareness of the importance of empathy through education is a useful start. Another helpful approach is a greater sensitivity to what our bodies are experiencing. This bodily ‘attunement’ can come in a number of forms. For example, psychologists in sport often speak of body scans or strategies that encourage athletes to be more mindful of muscle tension. Such mindfulness helps promote relaxation but also acts as an early warning to physical forms of distress. Another bodily approach that may be beneficial is called focusing, which was pioneered by psychologist Eugene Gendlin. Gendlin suggested that focusing looks to ‘unlock the wisdom of your body’ by attending to our ‘gut’ felt sense. Specifically, it is a sensitisation process that helps clarify ambiguous emotional responses. This process may involve exploring where the emotion rests (e.g. in your chest, shoulders etc.), what perhaps triggered this feeling, can it be represented in an image or word, or what does this feeling want or need. Essentially focusing involves a way to go ‘inside’ and understand what your body is trying to tell you. The strength of these bodily approaches is they help pinpoint our psychological needs, which in turn can provide a direction and intensity for our self empathy. 

Worth a read:

Elliott, R., A. C. Bohart, J. C. Watson and L. S. Greenberg (2011). “Empathy.” Psychotherapy (Chic) 48(43-9).

Gendlin, E. T. (1978). Focusing. London, Random House.

Hartley, D. (2020). The Hurt. London, Penguin.

Millar, D. and J. Whittle (2011). Racing through the Dark: The fall and rise of David Millar. London, Orion Publishing.