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Portia, Shakespeare’s eloquent and deeply caring heroine in Merchant of Venice, famously says that the quality of mercy is not strained. That it falls like the gentle rain, and is thrice blessed.

Of all the mostly-male characters in the play, only Portia makes a plea for Mercy.

And as a woman, Portia may well have best understood that emotional connection is a prerequisite for empathy.

Mercy, (she knew) without empathy, is empty. A pleasant enough concept, with with no reality.

Empathy requires emotional involvement. And understanding and imagination.

Empathy is the source of all other virtues like justice, kindness and compassion. By its absence, it’s the source of non-virtues like jealousy, envy, cruelty and meanness.

The tendency to console and show empathy is very powerful.

A Russian scientist tells the story about whenever her juvenile chimpanzee escaped to the roof, there was only one way to get him down. Food didn’t do the trick. Nadia, the scientist, had to sit and sob as if in pain. Only then would the young chimp come down, put his arms around her, and comfort her.

In a fascinating and recent article in Scientific American, the authors present compelling evidence that empathy is deeply felt and shared by animals and humans. 

From a coaching and healing perspective, it’s important to know that empathy (and probably all emotions ) are body-based…felt at the physical level; perceived at the intellectual one.  That’s what the Scientific American article suggests.

Why does this distinction matter?

Because, partners seeking more empathy between each other; people seeking more emotional connection in their lives can be helped by realizing that the way to do so is through the body. Feelings are somatic.

The Scientific American article suggests that when you see someone or something in distress, the image reactivates dormant neural representations (Re-presentation) of a similar situation in our own lives.

In essence we relive in our bodies a related or similar experience.

From my coaching experience, here are a few strategies I can recommend. Please let me know what you think:

1) Accept How You Feel
It’s counterproductive and harmful to get down on yourself for not empathizing. Or not being empathic enough when you feel you should. But that guilt blocks growth. Accepting yourself as you are is critical to be able to move forward.

2) Tune Into Your Body
In those moments when you sense empathy is called for, say in the present refugee crisis or an observed unkindness or kindness, stop and tune into your body. Try not to critique or judge what just happened. Rather, what do you notice happening in your body: behind your eyes, in your solar plexus, your skin, your throat?

3) Step Into Their Shoes
As an exercise, imagine what a tree feels when it’s being cut down.
What is that child feeling when the parent continues to ignore him?
Don’t judge. That’s an intellectual process. Stop and take in what you’re feeling.  

4) Access Your Emotions
The tendency to empathize is very natural, but it needs to be accessed. This is different from “practicing.” Empathic responses for ourselves and others can be developed, yes. But accessing it is a kinder, more organic approach.

It may seem like you’re putting yourself into tough emotional situations, and that may feel uncomfortable.

That’s about how it should be when we step out of our comfort zone.

By becoming more aware, we feel more comfortable and connected, developing stronger emotional connections with ourselves and those with whom we share life’s journey.

Portia also says the heart will always “o’er leap” the mind.


If you enjoyed this article, here’s another article you might enjoy:

image3Welcoming Your Emotions
When you chose to work with a coach, please be sure he or she is comfortable with your emotions and encourages you to share them. They are critical in doing successful work. The coach or therapist needs to be human. Needs to put him or herself personally into the work with you. It’s tempting to [read more]