Would you read this book? “What stops us connecting, and how to help empathy happen”

at the end of this post are some questions to you – would love to hear your thoughts!


It all began when I came across my first example of super-empathy. Watching an amazing woman called Jo Berry sit down and talk with the man who had killed her father in a BBC documentary back in 2001, I wasn’t to know that I had found my research topic for the next decade or more. But, here we are, so many years later. And, while I can’t say that I now know all there is to know about empathy, because I keep finding things that people have written and said about it, there are a couple of things that I am sure of, and it’s not often that a university researcher gets to say that! The first is that we know enough about empathy to be going on with, enough to make a difference. The second is that to really make a difference, we need to shift our gaze from empathy and on to its opposite, to what I call “dyspathy”.

Here’s my elevator pitch: Think of dyspathy as everything that stops empathy. Then, if we concentrate on dismantling dyspathy, we will be supporting empathy, just by letting it happen.

Why look away from what we want to increase? Well, what we’ve learnt from the recent neuroscience research that peers inside our brains to see what happens when we empathize, is that empathy happens. Empathy is automatic. We can’t help but do empathy. Of course that needs qualifying – there are people for whom empathy doesn’t just happen – more on that another time. And, of course, it’s not that simple – one kind of empathy is automatic, but there are other kinds too – we’ll meet these later in the book. But the basic fact about empathy remains, for most people there is an automatic connection that kicks in when we see or hear another person, that helps us to understand how they are feeling.

We can’t dismantle dyspathy without understanding it, knowing how it manages to flourish despite our good intentions and how it influences how we talk and interact with, and think about, other people.

I have to admit that my invention of this thing called dyspathy was rather like a magician’s card trick. First it wasn’t there; then it was. In my research there was just empathy as what I was investigating, the quality or activity of connecting with another person, getting inside their skin to understand what makes them tick. But as I researched people talking together, about home, family and strangers, and about threats in their lives, I came to see how they placed blocks to empathy or created distances between themselves and others so that there was no need to even think about empathy. The super-empathizers in my study showed clearly what it means to connect but they were a long way from most people with their mixed-up reasons for not ‘getting too involved’. By the way, I realise only too well that I belong in that group too; more confessions later.

It seemed unlikely that non-connectors could just become more empathic merely by wanting to be so or by agreeing that it might be a good idea. A lot more work was involved. And a key step in supporting that work was to understand more deeply what was going on when empathy failed, following the principle of ‘Know thy enemy’.

I started collecting together all the different ways in which we avoid connection with other people and putting them into some kind of order. At some point in this process, it seemed like a good idea to find a name for this disparate collection of connection-avoiding strategies, and I lighted upon ‘dyspathy’. An old and not much used word, it was lying around waiting to be brought back to life and seemed able to cope with including all the things I was finding.

Many years ago I studied mathematics and I think that one of the effects was how it tuned my mind, affected the way I see things. I have counterbalanced it with many years of art but occasionally ideas from maths pop up and offer something that I need. In this case, it offered me a way of understanding how dyspathy relates to empathy; they are complements one of another. Art offers a parallel: dyspathy fills the negative space of empathy, and vice versa. And Gestalt ideas of figure-ground (think of those pictures of young women who turn into ducks or old women just by shifting attention) offers yet another version. Put simply, when we try to understand how people connect with each other, dyspathy is all that empathy is not.

drawing the negative space of a plant

the white is the complement of the black, and vice versa

So, having named dyspathy and having investigated its various forms, habits and manifestations, I am now starting to write the book. The purpose of the book is to help people to spot dyspathy when it leaps or slinks into action and to come to know the most effective ways to delay and dispatch dyspathy, thereby giving empathy a chance to take its place.

Would you want to read such a book? and what would you want to find in there?

2 Responses to “Would you read this book? “What stops us connecting, and how to help empathy happen””
  1. Marcia says:

    I do like your wise and creative idea of dispathy as a way of fostering empathy. I would like to know when your book will be available. It seems to me a complementary way of enhancing empathy. I also like the clear way you write, especially for non speaking english person.

  2. I’ve enjoyed this introduction to your research, partly because of the way you create a voice and make this part of a lived experience, not just an abstract study. I would read on because finding away to block the blockers to empathy is vital not only in our individual relationships but in the relationships between countries and peoples.

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