In recent years, Ekman has had a growing interest in applying his knowledge of emotion toward bettering human social interactions. Inspired by intellectual exchanges with the Dalai Lama, he co-developed a program called Cultivating Emotional Balance, with the aim of helping individuals recognize and manage difficult emotions to enhance compassion and empathy in social interactions.
JS: Do you think that having empathy is critical to distal compassion?
PE: Empathy is such an ambiguous term. It depends on what you mean by it. If you mean “to feel what the other person feels,” I don’t think empathy is a prerequisite for any type of compassion.
It’s an accompaniment to some forms of proximal compassion, but I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. When I see somebody fall down in the street, I don’t have to feel their hurt in order to be motivated to help them. Some people would say that unless I feel it, I’m not going to care. That’s not my view.
But, being able to take the perspective of another person is critical to developing what I am calling distal compassion—in which you feel concern in trying to prevent harm or suffering from occurring.
By Jill Suttie