Is Empathy a skill that can be learned?

Empathy has become a far too commonly used term these days!

Especially during PTA meetings. The fact that one’s child may lack empathy has become a real concern for many. To make an informed decision about a diagnosis or a label, it is important to understand the meaning of empathy.

It is easy to understand what empathy means

It is however a complicated feeling to experience. Empathy has received a great deal of attention from both researchers and practitioners over the years. We now know that there is even a “brain connection” with empathy!

In 1996, a team of neuroscientists discovered brain neurons called “mirror” neurons. Mirror neurons are specifically tailor-made to mirror the emotions and bodily responses of another person. Siegel (2006) observes that, these mirror neurons help us create actual body sensations that allow us to resonate with the experiences of the other person. 

Empathy is therefore a skill that is learned

Structural changes may occur in a person’s brain on the acquisition of the skill. A lack of empathy only means that a child has not learned the skill or may currently lack the ability to express his/her feelings.


However, empathy can be learned only when the child is developmentally ready to take the perspective of another person. According to developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, a person develops the ability to think in abstract terms from around the age of 11 years.

A child can show readiness to understand empathy from the age of 7 years, according to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.

Empathy is learned as a process

  • The first step to learn empathy is to be empathic towards ones self. Understand yourself better.
  • Become aware of your own emotions and observe its manifestations in physiological reaction and psychological response of thought and behaviour.
  • Self-awareness helps a person draw appropriate ego boundaries with self and others.
  • It takes courage to step out of one’s own world to understand an experience from another person’s point of view without getting carried away.

My favourite explanation of empathy is by Carl Rogers. Think of it like being on an elephant ride with a person. You are just accompanying him as he shows you the sights and sounds of the night bazaar from the top as you move through the busy streets.

You are only an observer of what he experienced and you try your best to understand the depth of his feelings, knowing fully well that you can never truly understand the experience of another person.

On a lighter note, I would like to quote a readers digest joke I read eons ago – “If you want to know what another person is feeling, wear his shoes and walk a mile… That way you are one mile away and you have his shoes!!!”



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