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Communication in Crisis / Trust and empathy

Trust and empathy

János Pilinszky, the eminent Hungarian poet compares human encounters as attempts to build bridges. Bridge building implies the want of both parties to take part in order to realize the relationship. As bridges in the physical reality need plan the bridging relatiohships also need to be planned in advance. Trust and empathy form the basis for the will to create association with the other instead of to be separated.


Empathy is the general social attitude that makes possible to take the role of the other (Mead, 1934). In case of reversal empathy sets forth the path for smooth interaction. Putting the individual in the place of the other individual the empathic concern enables individuals to sympathetically imagine how the other individuals feel and see the world. Lack of empathy is a major obstacle to positive responsiveness to another. The arousal of empathy is incentive to identification with other people facilitating the recognition of moral community bonding people together.

Consequently, the arousal of empathy is more likely between members of the same moral community. The potential of empathy, however, is in the recognition of the other individual as member of an enlarged community that makes him or her worth to help. Enemies are individuals prevented to be seen as friends by dehumanization of the other. Empathy, in contrast, is based on humanization of the other encouraging to knowledge, recognition and helpfulness (Buda, 2006)..

Empathy can be aroused on two levels. The first level of empathy is when individuals understand how other individuals feel and think and put themselves in their place.This is the particular kind of empathy that stems from the recognition of belongingness to the same community. The second level of empathy is different from the empathy aroused on the first level. The emergence of the empathic concern in this case is based on the enlargment of one’s moral community including the whole humanity. This is the unversal kind of empathy.

In crisis communication and in post-traumatic treatment the development of universal empathy becomes primarily important. No matter that empathy is particular or universal affective and cogitive tyypes of empathy can be distinguished (Deutsch, 2000).

The affective types of empathy respond to the feelings of the other. The cognitive types of empathy contain the understanding the causes of the feeling of the other as well as shares the perspective and frame of reference of the other’s world view

Methods to train people to become emphatic

The road to development of empathy is the socio-drama. Bridges between people are identified in social psychology as roles. Consequently role playing, role reversal and role guided imagination are the major methods of treating people who are not emphatihically responsive to others. Role playing compels the cilent to imagining that she/he is someone else. As a result of role playing the client sees the world through the eyes of the other, fears what she/he fears, desires what she/he desires, and acts as the other would act in a given conflict. Role reversal differs from role playing because it involves exchanging role with the other person with whom the client is in acquiantance. In role guided imagination the client is required to enact of the role of other person. The client is supposed to adopt the relevant characteristics of the model including the way he/she speeks, eats, makes sex and edncounters with friends and enemies.

One of the most influental initiatives to raise universal empathy is the „Theatre of Witness” model of performance developed by Teva Sepinuck 1986. The stories come from the people who were victims and perpetratos themselves in intergroup conflict. The audience can be witness to suffering, redemption, pain and pleasure. The performances have included refugees, immigrants, survivors and victims of intergroup violence. police officers and criminals, family members of murder victims. victims of domestic violence and people suffering in post-traumatic syndrome. The dramatic performence reveal issues of guilt, forgiveness, redemption.

The performances are recorded and are made availabe in the web. Excerpts taken from the individual performances were collected into a kit of conflict resolution that can be used in trainging aimed at to enhancing the level of particular and universal empathy


Trust can be defined as an aspect of empathy extended into the future. Trust is an expectation that the interactions and transactions will continue uninhibited by suspcion and distrust. Social science literature pays special attention to trustasserting that trust is the „glue” that holds people in the society together and distrust separates them from each other inhibiting them to create bridgeing relationhips (Seligman, 1997).. In addition to social trust that is the „glue” between people thare the institutional trust or confidence that is based on the expectation of the operation of insitutions based on explicit or implicit rules (Fukuyama, 1995).

Building and restoring trust is thre pre-requsite of resolving social conflicts . Huncik’s research carried out in Slovakia between Slovaks and Hungarians indicated that trust can be enhanced if the parties share perspectives and get rid of fear of each other. (Huncik,1999).

The paradox of trust is that its present reality roots in the future. Trust is an expectation that another’s intentions are in resonance with our own intentions. Relationships based on trust can result long-term cooperation offering opportunities of self-realization and attainment of mutually importan goals.

Trust building between groups can be started by establishing bonds stemming from sheer rationality. This is the calculus based trust. In the calculus based trust reliability matters. Relationships based on calculus, however, can be strengthened further by building identification based trust. In identification based trust values matter. If the parties share common creeds the are motivated to maintain the relationship even is absence of calculus based interests.

Distrust, however, can never be excluded from the relationships. Most relationships contain elements of trust and distrust. Ambivalence can lead to immobilization halting the relationship. Trust, conseqently, must be managed and sustained by minimazing fallibility leading to distrust.

In order to managing trust the parties must avoid actions of unreliability, criticism or antagonism. In cases of violations of trust the individuals responsible for the violations should apologize and give a sincere explanation of the reasons of the violation. Without acknowledgement of responsibility and expressing regret for the harm caused by the violation of the expectations based on trust no reduction of distrust can be expected.

Communication plays a critical role in trust management. Social relationships are most critical when trust broken. In order to resolve the crisis trust between the parties involved must be repaired.

Commonality of interests, goals, concerns and values and principles are concommittant with social trust. The time factor is crucial. The test of trust in the relationship is the time spent together without ambivalence, doubt and dsitrust. The experience of resonance, the effective comlpetion of commonality takes much time. Trust, in the final analys, is the most productive source of the social capital we have.

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