What is empathy, and can empathy be taught?

Phys Ther. 1990 Nov;70(11):707-11; discussion 712-5. doi: 10.1093/ptj/70.11.707.


Empathy is a commonly used, but poorly understood, concept. It is often confused with related concepts such as sympathy, pity, identification, and self-transposal. The purposes of this article are to clearly distinguish empathy from related terms and to suggest that the act of empathizing cannot be taught. According to Edith Stein, a German phenomenologist, empathy can be facilitated. It also can be interrupted and blocked, but it cannot be forced to occur. What makes empathy unique, according to Stein, is that it happens to us; it is indirectly given to us, "nonprimordially." When empathy occurs, we find ourselves experiencing it, rather than directly causing it to happen. This is the characteristic that makes the act of empathy unteachable. Instead, promoting attitudes and behaviors such as self-awareness, nonjudgmental positive regard for others, good listening skills, and self-confidence are suggested as important in the development of clinicians who will demonstrate an empathic willingness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Physical Therapy Modalities / psychology*
  • Professional-Patient Relations*
  • Self Concept