Is Empathy Nature, or Nurture?

In a recent group discussion, a fellow student counselor raised the question of whether people either have the capacity for empathy, or not. The peer interpreted that this could have been guidance given by a more seasoned counselor. Many of us wondered if the statement by the established counselor was well interpreted by our peer. This can be a hit or miss sometimes. I make my own fair share of errors misinterpreting what was in someone’s head when words come out of their mouth. It’s a journey.  

For purposes here, I will modify the peer’s concern and ask, is empathy nature, or nature? What do you think?  

To address that concern,  I “dialed a friend” by turning to one of our readings for the week: The Gift of Therapy… by Dr. Irving D. Yalom.  By the way, great book; short powerful chapters that will leave lasting impressions on your mind; counselor, client, or otherwise.  

“Accurate empathy is an essential trait not only for therapists but for patients, and we must help patients develop empathy for others” (Yalom, 2013: 60). After reading this quote you may have already formulated an answer to the question, at least from Yalom’s point of view. Yalom indicates that our patients often come to see us because of issues with interpersonal relationships, and part of the confluence of struggles is that, “Many fail to empathize with the feelings and experiences of others” (60). Therefore, one of the tasks of the counselor is to, “help patients develop empathy” (60). In other words, nurture empathy in them.  

How? I’m glad you asked. “The strategy is straight-forward: Help patients experience empathy with you, and they will automatically make the necessary extrapolations to other important figures in their lives” (Yalom, 2013: 60).  

But what is this thing called empathy in the first place? I have read the writings of many experts on this matter, but no description of empathy made a more powerful impact on me than when our professor, Dr. Michael Fletcher interrupted a student in the middle of her statement about how difficult it is to empathize with a patient who is “the villain in their story.” That is to say, causing potentially grievous harm to self and others. Dr. Fletcher interjected, “Empathy is not like that. All empathy is, is for you to know what is being experienced by the individual; not to like them, or dislike them…. It is to show understanding and connectedness, no judgement.”  

So if Dr. Fletcher is correct that empathy is about showing that we understand and connect, and Yalom is also correct, that empathy is essential for both therapist and client, what sort of mechanism and practices are well suited to build collaborative empathy in the therapeutic experience? I hope to write on that question in a future blog. For now, what are your thoughts and feelings about this take; that empathy is nurtured, like a skillful art?  

Written By: Peter, Masters Level Intern


Yalom, I. D. (2013). The Gift of Therapy. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.  

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