Analysis: research on empathy reminds us it takes two to tango when it comes to understanding one another

When we navigate around our physical environment, we look for signs to tell us where we are going and landmarks to guide us. When we navigate the social world of other people's thoughts and feelings, we similarly seek out and send signals to show that we understand one another. However, despite our best efforts sometimes misunderstandings occur and persist. Are such misunderstandings mutual? When I fail to understand another person, is it likely that they also misunderstand me? What does it mean to have empathy for one another?

Empathy is generally considered a positive characteristic of an individual and a society. But take a moment and ask yourself, what exactly is empathy? A colloquial explanation is that it involves understanding and caring for others, the metaphorical ability to 'walk in someone else’s shoes’. When scientists try to define empathy in order to study it, they identify the key ingredients that constitute an empathic interaction.

First, we must pay attention to other people, then we must accurately identify what they are feeling, and finally we need to share those feelings as if the experience were happening to ourselves. When we break empathy down into these three steps, it becomes clear that misunderstandings can arise at each stage. We might misunderstand others simply because we fail to pay attention, or if we do attend to them, we might then struggle to figure out what they are actually feeling, and even then, knowing what they are feeling doesn’t guarantee that we will actively share in those feelings. Empathy entails a complex sequence of events, one that offers many opportunities to misunderstand others and for them to misunderstand us.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Professor Pat Dolan, director of the UNESCO Child & Family Research Centre, NUI Galway on if schools should have empathy classes

The idea that autistic people lack empathy is a social myth that prevails, in spite of considerable evidence showing that autistic individuals can feel empathy and even be hyper-empathic. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by difficulties with social communication and interaction, and restricted and repetitive interests. There are many stereotypes about autism that do not reflect the diversity or experiences of autistic individuals.

As our understanding of autism has developed over the past decades, so too has our conceptualisation of the condition. The concept of ‘neurodivergence’ has emerged from the autism community to represent a different way of thinking and processing the world compared to neurotypical individuals. This shifts our understanding of autism from a condition of social deficits to one of social differences. In the words of Eve Power, Auditor of the Neurodivergent Society at the University of Galway, "Neurodivergent people are just people who think, feel, learn, and behave differently to what is considered 'normal'. This doesn't make them any less human and it is important to recognise that".

Acknowledging such differences allows us to ask a new question: not, why do people with neurodivergent minds fail to understand people with neurotypical minds, but rather, why do people with neurotypical minds fail to understand people with neurodivergent minds? Empathy is a bidirectional process, and building mutual understanding takes effort from all participants in a social interaction.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Brendan O'Connor, Consultant Paediatric Psychiatrist Dr Kieran Moore talks about autism diagnosis in adulthood

Neurodivergent individuals can indeed struggle to understand others and social situations, as described by a member of the Neurodivergent Society: "It's like everyone else was born with a super-secret manual that contains magical knowledge and us neurodivergent folk were given a pat on the back and told ‘go get em’". Much previous research has focused on how and why neurodivergent minds experience the world differently to neurotypical minds. Different experiences of the world can lead to mutual misunderstanding between neurodivergent and neurotypical people. This has been called the ‘Double Empathy Problem’ in which people with different life experiences struggle to understand one another.

The concept of Double Empathy acknowledges that empathy is a two-way process, and communication between people with vastly different ways of being in the world can be challenging. Many people have experienced this by traveling to cultures very different to one they are familiar with. Neurodivergence creates a kind of cognitive culture and is a source of diversity in our society. Like all sources of diversity, it presents an opportunity for empathic communication so our society can navigate how to accommodate differences and be inclusive.

Read more: Your guide to neurodiversity and other neuro terms

The lived experiences of neurodivergent individuals indicate the challenges of disclosing ones differences, as described by a member of the Neurodivergent Society: "The decision to let people know or not is tricky. By not disclosing it, you will likely be ridiculed and mocked for many things you do, even in the adult world. From your handwriting to the way you walk. When you disclose it, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to the automatic label of disability, which to many people means being too incompetent even to get to know, which is incredibly disheartening. They have a perceived image of you which may or may not be accurate for your case."

Empathy is clearly a key ingredient to building mutual understanding, and initiatives such as the Empathy Lab at the University of Galway demonstrate its importance in an innovative and inclusive society. Research on empathy as a bidirectional process - Double Empathy – reminds us that for mutual understanding in any social interaction, it takes two.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ