Empathy involves the accurate communication of an appreciation of another person's ongoing intentional actions in a fashion that the other person can tolerate. This appreciation requires understanding the other person's view of their world and of their place in it.
Empathy is an ordinary feature of life, a natural aspect of the unfolding improvisation of our linked behaviors. We act together from our understanding of what the other is trying to do.
But sometimes empathy is difficult to maintain. When we are preoccupied, when we are stressed, when our circumstances have been significantly altered, we may lose the attuned connection we take for granted.
Regaining empathy requires more awareness of the nature of intention than is usual. But what does this entail?
Intentional action involves what a person wants, what they value and what they recognize as their current opportunities and dilemmas. This is coupled with a sense of whether they have the relevant skills to pursue their goals. Something is at stake, whether trivial or profound.
Since empathy involves a complex package of recognitions, it has a "more or less" quality. When I sense I am being inadequately empathetic, I might think about the other person's circumstances and ask myself the following questions (or I might even ask them):
1. Given their knowledge of the overall current circumstances, what does this person want and value? (And do we share an understanding of what the overall circumstance calls for?)
2. What exactly do they recognize in their circumstance relevant to what they want or value? (And do we share a common appreciation of the relevant circumstances?)
3. What do they know how to do, what skills do they possess, given what they see as their current opportunity or dilemma? (And are they aware of having the needed competencies).
4. What is the significance to them of how they behave in these circumstances?
5. What personal characteristics of theirs are involved or expressed?
6. Can they tolerate the way I express what I understand about them?
Adapted from my “The Parameters of Empathy: Core Considerations for Psychotherapy and Supervision”, The Advances in Descriptive Psychology, Vol. 10, 2013.