Empathy is one of the most important aspects of being human.
To empathize with a person is to be able to creatively extend ourselves into that person’s situation even when their situation is vastly different from our own. It is the ability to feel what others are feeling, for their experiences to become our experiences.
Empathy is closely related both to love and to imagination. It is related to love because it enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others' sorrows, joys and sufferings. It is related to imagination because it involves identifying with experiences or emotions that are not our own but which we can nevertheless imagine feeling.
Psychologist and brain scientists have discovered that we develop empathy through processes that begin when we are babies, as a result of our interactions and relationships with others, principally our parents. When the parental/child relationship is dysfunctional, a result is that the child may not develop empathy, or at least that their ability to emphasize with others is stunted.
Because I am a writer I have a lot of interaction with people on an intellectual level. I enjoy debating issues and talking about ideas. Because of this, I have sometimes reflected how empathy is related to the ability to engage with another person’s argumentation, to share someone else’s thoughts and to be able to understand where another person is coming from, even when we might personally disagree with that person. Often I have found that people who find it difficult to empathize on an interpersonal level also find it difficult to properly understand viewpoints with which they may personally not agree.
Aristotle once commented that the mark of an educated man is the ability to entertain a thought even when you personally do not agree with that thought. The way you find out if a person is capable of doing this is simply to ask them to try to summarize their opponent’s viewpoint and then see if the opponent agrees that it is a fair summary.
When I’m debating someone, if I feel we’re talking past each other, I will often stop the other person and say, “Could you just summarize what you think I’m saying, so I can see if you’ve properly understood it?” Sometimes the other person will give a fair summary, but often they will be completely off the mark. Equally, when I disagree with a person, I often try to first summarize what I think my opponent is saying so they don’t feel that my disagreement is rooted in misunderstanding. This is because its important for me that we debate actual areas of disagreement and not waste time on misunderstanding.
Again, I strongly believe that the ability to do this in intellectual debate is related to empathy.
To read more about empathy, and how the internet is eroding our ability to empathize with others, see my posts 'Empathy Part 2' and 'Our Disembodied Selves.'