Tag Archives: empathy

The Conversational Fire of Curiosity

 A Vibrant Sense of Curiosity is Always in Short Supply.

        Auguste Renoir, The Conversation

Over a lifetime we may be lucky enough to collect a wonderful mix of friends and family. The rewards are many and varied, but we are especially fortunate if they include persons who have the capacity to explore the revealing details of another’s experience. A person’s innate desire to know more about their interlocutor is an asset that means even more than the ability to listen accurately.

Most of us can often identify a person and a particular place when our connection with a genuinely curious person blossomed into a memorable moment. For me the rewards of this kind of conversational oasis were clearly evident when our family paid a routine visit to my sister’s future in-laws. I was just beginning high school, and had been advised by a parent that Faith was an “unusual” person, often with her head in a book and a penchant to talk about “strange” things like theology and philosophy. Those were considered exotic topics in our practical family.

She may have been my parent’s age, but spending time with Faith was a small but important revelation. For part of our visit of several hours she took a keen interest in what I was doing, what my classes in a new school were like, and what I wanted to do with my life. Then she listened and asked more questions. I’m not sure I ever felt the warm spotlight of someone else’s attention so completely before. I had the feeling that she found me fascinating. I simply had not encountered someone who so completely gave themselves over to the typically modest and confused existence of a middling high school student. In those few minutes Faith demonstrated the kind of intellectual curiosity that I still try to foster with my own students.

Think of conversational curiosity as a rare double-down: listening times two.  Most of us can engage in what is usually the mutual pretense of showing interest in another. That often registers as conversational responsiveness. And it’s a functional and useful courtesy in everyday life. We certainly understand that the reverse is more unpleasant: that stuck-alone-on-an-island feeling when we are on the receiving end of a person emptying their mind of too much accumulated baggage.  As everyone knows, the self-obsessed can suck all of the air out of a room.

By contrast, curiosity is a gift to another interlocutor. At its best it seems to spring from a heightened appreciation of things and events. Where most of us see a single subject, the curious see interwoven threads. When too many of us are dominated by the need to express or judge, the curious have an interest to know or discover.

Curiosity cannot be willed. It requires someone who is relatively secure with who they are.

If this sounds easy, it isn’t. This trait thrives on mental energy that too often gets drained away by insecurities that arise from the need for frequent affirmation. The withering of this impulse is also abetted by our preoccupation with the endless chatter of constant messaging that feeds mostly private fixations.

Effective teaching requires curious questioners who can function as surrogates for others less willing to engage. These kinds of active learners give needed energy to a classroom. Woe to the teacher when they are in short supply. The same applies in the boardroom as well. The CEO of a technology company recently noted that without curiosity “You’re dead.” With it “you’re more inclusive, you question more, and you listen.”[i]

[1] Tiger Tyagarajan, “If You’re Curious, You Hold the Keys,” New York Times, Sunday Business, July 11, 2014, 2.


Empathy: Finding Ourselves in Others

It is virtually impossible to think of the effects of most forms of complex discourse—from film to talk therapies—without addressing the capacities of key agents to acquire understandings that privilege compassion over judgment.

In spite of its obvious place as an essential feature of the fluent communicator, the capacity for empathy is unevenly distributed across any population.  But it remains a central capacity necessary for individuals engaged in complex and highly interactive forms of communication.

Empathy is a bond created by recognition of oneself in someone else’s experience.  Or, as Martin Hoffman ingeniously describes it, empathy is “an affective response more appropriate to someone else’s situation than to one’s own.”  It simultaneously acknowledges the authenticity of another’s feelings and suggests the momentary creation of a more personal shared experience.  It is a reminder that we are not alone, even when we feel estranged from other people.  Empathy happens when we meet the challenge to imagine the inner lives of others.

The word itself was not the invention of academic psychology, but grew from German aesthetic theory at the beginning of the 20th Century.  As I note in my book, The Perfect Response, Robert Vischer was looking for a way to express the idea of projecting oneself into another object (Einfühlung).2  He wanted to find a vocabulary that would help in the analysis of the individual’s response to the visual arts.  Had he not discovered so fitting a term, others would have surely had to invent it.  It is virtually impossible to think of the effects of most forms of complex communication—from film to talk therapies—without addressing the capacities of key agents to acquire empathetic understanding.

To some extent we seem hardwired for simple forms of empathetic responses.  Psychologist Daniel Goldman describes an unlearned “primal empathy” that flows from simple contact with others.We and other primates are naturally inclined to “read” facial and physical expressions, converting them into tentative understandings about what others may be experiencing.  The threshold of awareness can be measured at the margins, as when a primate or infant is able to recognize itself (as opposed to an unknown or threatening alien) on a reflective surface. This kind of “mirroring” begins a sequence of consciousness that includes thinking as if they were the other. “I know how you feel” may be a cliché for the ages, but it reasonably describes what we take to be relatively faithful inferences made in limitless ranges of situations.

Even at the human end of the scale there are no guarantees.   Sometimes the more we know about another person, the less of a connection we feel.  But the reverse usually happens.  Familiarity with an individual and their world increases the likelihood that we will recognize some of their experiences as our own.

In clinical settings focusing on mental health, empathy still functions as a core value in client centered therapy.  The idea of talk therapy without a supportive and accurate listener is almost unthinkable.  If quick and critical judgment is the poison of too many troubled relationships, empathy and full consciousness of how each party is feeling is a necessary antidote.  This therapy is predicated on the suspension of judgment long enough to understand another.   Not surprisingly, the inability to be sympathetic is a recurring symptom in various disorders, including paranoia, narcissism, and the antisocial personality.

Because empathy is a subjective experience, it is easier to observe its basic impulse than to accurately map its affective meanings.  We can strive for objective measures of it, but its sources are always bound in alignments and understandings unique to the individual. Thus the great paradox of empathy is also the paradox of communication:  we live in the isolation of a unique private consciousness, even while the quest for certain understandings pulls us out of ourselves and toward others.


1 Martin Hoffman, “Empathy: Justice and Moral Judgment,” in Empathy and Its Development ed. by Nancy Eisenberg and Janet Strayer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48.

2 Gary C. Woodward, The Perfect Response: Studies in the Rhetorical Personality (Lexington Books, 2010), 27.

3 Daniel Goldman, Social Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 2006), 84-88.