Empathy is the ability to identify with the feelings or point of view of another person: in other words to put oneself into someone else’s shoes. We start off life completely self-centred and part of a healthy upbringing is to become aware of and respond to the needs and thoughts of those around us. As we go through life we discover that some people are more empathetic than others, whether by nature or nurture it´s difficult to say, but a complete absence of empathy would turn us into psychopaths and monsters.
Communication in itself requires a certain measure of empathy because we are using language to make something understandable to another. When we speak in simple language to a child, or slowly for a foreigner, when an expert uses layman’s terms to explain a complex subject or we edit the truth so as not to hurt someone’s feelings, these are all exercises in empathy.
Sometimes when we are communicating in a less than perfect way in a foreign language, we come across a complete lack of empathy towards us on the part of our listeners. This often happens when we are speaking to someone who has never had to learn a foreign language, and particularly someone who has not travelled or had much contact with people outside their own culture and language group. You may well have struggled to communicate in Spanish with someone who cannot understand why it is that you cannot understand them. When asked to repeat something, this person will shout the same words at the same speed or simply look at you as if you have arrived from another planet. They cannot comprehend what you problem is, not because they are unsympathetic by nature, but because they are unable to put themselves in your shoes. Incidentally, this inability to empathize is not the same as the case of someone who deliberately misunderstands you because they are critical of you or your language skills.
The more empathetic we are, the better we will be at communicating. If someone is struggling to speak in our language, being empathetic means that we are listening for what they are trying to get at and understanding a situation from their point of view, which may also include interpreting their gestures correctly and understanding something about their cultural background. In other words, empathy also makes us into more tolerant people.