What is Relational Empathy?
Relational Empathy © is a pluralistic learning approach for teaching empathy that draws from and incorporates different understanding of empathy as they have been articulated in the disciplines of aestheticism, psychology, primatology, philosophy, medical ethics, and neuroscience. The theory of relational empathy was constructed for the purpose of creating a broad and inclusive perspective of empathy suitable for changing habits of behavior and transforming organizational culture.
Relational empathy is also a habit of behavior in which three relations are experienced: the relations of feeling into, feeling with, and feeling for.
A "relation" is a mode or manner by which we connect with other persons or things.
We can think of each of these three relations also as daily practices, each of which has been described as a type of empathy.
Let's call these three habits/practices:
1. Empathic Mindfulness
2. Empathic Connection
3. Empathic Care
Empathic mindfulness is recognized in any act in which we intentionally project our thoughts and feelings into an object of perception for the purpose of trying to grasp a deeper awareness of it.
"Mindfulness" is a state of lucid awareness of persons and things around us that transcends the limitations of our initial immediate sensing of them.
An Example of Empathic Mindfulness:
You are visiting the museum of Modern Art in New York
City and find one of its treasures: Starry Night by Vincent
Van Gogh. Instead of simply looking at it and moving on,
you decide to stand before it for a while in an attempt to
"feel into" its complexity and uniqueness in order to gain
a greater awareness of it as a work of art. After about
fifteen minutes, just when you are sensing that you have
a deeper awareness of this majestic work of art, another
patron steeps right in your field of view, blocking your
sight. As she also begins to feel into the painting, you feel happy for the joy she is expressing upon her face as you feel into her experience, but you also wished she would have felt into your experience so as not to occlude your gaze.
In our most important relationships, this focused perception
and observation is necessary to "feel with" and understand
others in order to appreciate their perspectives. It takes patience, though, and requires a focused and intentional openness to what others might be experiencing.
Empathic connection occurs whenever we feel connected, united, or in sync with another person or thing.
Sometimes, we experience this habit of empathy instantly, e.g., when one is crying profusely or laughing hysterically, while other times an accurate grasp of what another is experiencing requires much more effort.
An Example of Empathic Connection:
You and one of your friends have been invited to a social
gathering at the end of the work week. As you arrive at the
function together it becomes immediately clear to each of you
that everyone at the event is wearing formal attire, and though
you are dressed in this way, your friend isn’t. As you watch
your friend explain his misunderstanding to others at the party, you begin to imagine how you would feel in his position and you begin to feel pity for him, believing that he must be embarrassed as you would be if you were him. But as you continue to watch your friend converse with others, he seems to be quite as ease with the situation. As you notice this, you begin to connect with his perspective differently by imagining how he feels instead of how you would feel if you were him.
Empathic care arises whenever we feel concern, care, and compassion for things and persons usually for their benefit and well-being rather than own own.
When these feelings of concern, care, and compassion provoke us to act for another, empathic care finds it greatest realization and practical application.
An Example of Empathic Care
On your way home after working longer than anyone
should, you realize that something is terrible wrong with
your car. You pull over to the side of the road and discover
you have a flat tire. As you open your trunk to change the
flat, you realize that you allowed your neighbor to borrow
your extra tire this morning so that he could get his kids
to school on time.
As you being to consider your options, you remember that
a friend of yours lives about ten miles away. You call your friend and inform her of your situation. Although she is in the middle of a significant project for her business, she takes the time to both feel into and feel with the gravity of your words and the seriousness of the situation. She expresses words of concern and care for situation, and as she does you inwardly hope that she can act on her feelings and save your from this dire situation. As you complete that thought, she assures you that she will come to your rescue as soon as she is able.
The Experience of Relational Empathy
Relational empathy occurs whenever all three of these habits are operative in our experiences toward objects or persons.
Looking at the diagram to the left, relational empathy is the center point where all three bubbles meet.
You have experienced relational empathy myriad times throughout your life, and the goal of Relational Empathy
as a learning approach is to teach others how to exercise these three habits everyday as a pragmatic skill.
That is, you observed the man stepping on the nail
and “felt your way” into his experience as he was
expressing his pain. With this conscious act you
experienced a contextualized version of the relation
of feeling-into. By “feeling your way” into the man’s
agony, you then experienced the second relation as
you immediately grasped that he was in pain and
were able to imaginatively simulate what it might
be like to feel his pain. But, you probably didn’t experience the third relation of feeling-for.
Experience shows us that sometimes only one or two of these relations function during our interactions with other persons or things.
Here is an example to illustrate this. Imagine that
you and a friend are walking on the
boardwalk of a California beach, when suddenly,
a man blindsides you and steals one of your
As a consequence, you and your friend are knocked
down. Each of you are in a state of shock lying on the
wooden pathway, but you manage to watch the person
run away from your vantage point lying on the ground. He is running quite quickly,
and as you consider whether or not it is a good idea to chase after him, you notice that the man steps on a nail protruding from the boardwalk and, as a consequence, is screaming in agony. At this moment, you would probably experience the first and second relations but not the third.
Now consider another version of the story. You and your friend are walking on the same boardwalk, but in this case, your friend steps on a nail. In this circumstance, you would most likely experience all three relations of empathy. You would have felt your way into the experience of your friend, grasp and imagined her/his experience, and acted to help your friend. In the first story, you likely didn’t experience relational empathy, but in second, chances are you did.
For more on the history and practicality of
relational empathy, click here.