Learning Empathy as Part of Intercultural Communication Competence




This paper provides an overview of empathy within intercultural communication and how by becoming more empathetic one can increase their intercultural communication competence.  Research identifies several ways of learning empathy that include self-awareness, verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and intercultural knowledge.  Empathy within intercultural communication competence is complex yet consistent throughout many modalities.  Research shows several inadequacies in current views on empathy, such as an overemphasis on accuracy, an incorrect focus on affect and a view of empathy as an ability or skill set.  In this literature review, there is an underlying emphasis on empathy within intercultural communication as it relates to practitioners working within disability awareness or special needs services support.  



The research related to intercultural communication competence and empathy provides a level of consistency in regards to effective modalities.  Scholars generally agree that intercultural communication competence and empathy is increasingly necessary in developing a global understanding of culture.  This paper seeks to outline effective methodologies to educate practitioners on embedding empathy into an effective practice of intercultural communication competence. 

Scholars agree that learning empathy as part of intercultural communication competence is developmental.  Empathy requires introspection and self-awareness, communication skills, psychological health and awareness of cultures other than one’s own (Chen & Starosta, 2005). The research supports the idea that empathy is learned through interpersonal development and is not a rote skill set (Broome, 1991, pg. 239).  As a result of the extensive developmental factors associated with learning empathy within intercultural communication competence, research indicates developing and maintaining empathy is lifelong learning.


Literature Review


Stages of Development

In the research conducted by Guo-Ming Chen (1989), he identifies four elements of intercultural communication competence and their relationship to one another.  These intercultural communication competence elements are: personal attributes, communication skills, psychological adaptation and cultural awareness.  Personal attributes include self-disclosure, self-awareness, self-concept and social relaxation.  Communication skills include message skills, social skills, flexibility and interaction management.  Psychological adaptation is overcoming frustration, stress, alienation and ambiguity.  Cultural Awareness is identifying social values, social customs, social norms and social systems. (Chen, 1989, pg. 121).

According to Denise Lussier (2007), there are three domains of intercultural communication competence. The first is intercultural cognitive competence and includes the humanistic approach or perception of information from our own culture, the sociocultural approach, and the anthropological approach or dealing with different situations within different contexts.  Second are intercultural skills, which includes linguistics or language skills, interaction with social and cultural environments or real-life situations, and integration and negotiation of the target language and culture or the ability to use both language and culture to apply skills in a learned culture.  Last is intercultural being, which includes cultural awareness, the sensitivity and consciousness of other cultures; critical appropriation, the perception of self-culture and other cultures; and trans-cultural competence, the integration of new values from a culture different from one’s own.  Lussier states the skills to become an intercultural speaker are respect, empathy, flexibility, patience, interest, curiosity, openness, motivation, a sense of humor, tolerance for ambiguity and a willingness to suspend judgment.  (Lussier, 2007, pg. 309-322)

Sandra Mahoney and Jon Schamber (2004) explore the developmental design and assessment of a general education curriculum on diversity.  According to Mahoney and Schamber, college students progress through a series of stages in their college years from a right-wrong mentality to one where multiple viewpoints are experienced as valid and to one in which evaluations are made in a relativistic way (Mahoney &Schamber; Love & Guthrie, 1999).  Mahoney and Schamber review Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.  In Bennett’s work, the first three stages, called ethnocentric stages, are denial of difference, or a lack of construction that all people are similar (i.e. “all people are the same”); defense of difference, or a recognition of difference while maintaining that all people are equal; and minimization of difference, or an awareness of surface level cultural difference and a recognition of a basic similarity between all people.  The last three stages, called ethnorelative, are acceptance of difference, when the difference is no longer threatening and new catagories begin to develop; adaption of difference, or the ability to see through a different frame of reference; and integration of difference, or seeing oneself as part of multiple cultures. (Mahoney &Schamber, 2004).

Where Empathy Plays a Role

            Arthur Clark in Empathy: An Integral Model in the Counseling Process outlines three forms of empathy in effective counseling.  The first is subjective empathy or our ability to introspectively consider our response to a situation.  This includes four processes such as identification, imagination, intuition and felt-level experiencing. The second is interpersonal empathy, in which the counselor relies on the relational aspect of integration and attempts to understand empathetically.  The last is objective empathy and it relies on reputable sources such as research and statistics.   Clark maintains that a comprehensive definition of empathy includes inclusiveness, or a person-centered approach; enrichment, or integrating perspectives from other ways of knowing; conciliation, or seeing the situation through multiple perspectives; consciousness, or a change in one’s modality; constraints, or limitations to empathy; and finally the definition, a common understanding of empathy (Clark, 2010, pg. 348-356).  

Guo-Ming Chen (2005) in his work Intercultural Listening refers to empathy as a form of sensitivity.  Chen writes that to accomplish empathy one must first acquire sensitivity and creativity.  Sensitivity creates the underlying foundation and creativity creates means for empathy to occur (Chen & Starosta, 2004, p. 13)

Benjamin Broome in his essay Building Shared Meaning: Implications of a Relational Approach to Empathy for Teaching Intercultural Communication states that previous definitions of empathy have not been useful for intercultural communication competence.  Broome states that in previous definitions there has been an overemphasis on accuracy, and this decreases the usefulness as participants in the conversational process are unable to predict one another’s process.  Secondly, there is an inappropriate focus on affect; affective responses lead to empathy being misunderstood for sympathy.  Lastly, there is an improper portrayal of empathy as an ability or skill in which people believe that one can learn empathy as a skill set - a rote set of techniques learned apart from one’s interpersonal development (Broome, 1991). 

            Lastly, Beatrice Fennimore, in her essay Know Where You Stand and Stand There: Everyday Advocacy for Children of Diversity, discusses the effects of developing an empathetic mindset when working with early childhood and early intervention educators.  Fennimore states that teachers must identify and acknowledge their disappointment between the idealistic goals of a perfect situation and an achievable reality.  She continues by writing that teachers must have a willingness to overcome frustration and represent an ideal goal of success in both their personal and professional lives.  Two reasons teachers in early childhood education programs may find themselves frustrated are their acceptance of jobs without full awareness of the discrimination in schools and their personal encounters with extreme diversity such as extreme poverty or child abuse. However, teachers can be proactive in making change.  First, they can develop a personal system of ethical analysis, or introspectively determine how they will act and/or respond in a given scenario.  Secondly, teachers must not expect a complete and perfect solution.  Teachers must recognize that early childhood education is developmental and there are no right or wrong solutions but a developmental range in between.  Finally, Fennimore writes that teachers must focus on the intentionality of what is best for their early childhood students and be mediators between the educational system and their students (Fennimore, 2007). 



            In his essay Intercultural Effectiveness, Guo-Ming Chen encourages people to develop a global mindset.  People need to be open to other cultures in order to participate within intercultural communication competence.  The personal characteristics to begin opening to other cultures include flexibility, sensitivity, open-mindedness and motivation (Chen & Starosta, 2005). 

            The result of this Literature Review identifies several effective ways to educate practitioners who are seeking an increase in their intercultural communication competence on empathy.  It is important to know that learning intercultural communication competence is a constant process.  In this research I included several educational models for teaching empathy, though every individual must be aware of their perceptions in order to develop intercultural communication competence. 




Allen, B. (2011). Difference matters: communicating social identity

Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc. 


Broome, B. J. (1991). Building shared meaning: implications of a relational approach to

empathy for teaching intercultural communication. Communication Education, v40.3, 235.


Chen, G. (1989). Relationships of the dimensions of intercultural communication

competence. Communication Quarterly, v37.2, 118-33.


Chen, G. M. and Starosta, W.J. (2005). Intercultural listening: collected reflections,

collated refractions. International and Intercultural Communication Annual, v28, 274-285.


Clark, A.J. (2010).  Empathy: an integral model in the counseling process.  Journal of

Counseling & Development, v88.3, 348-356.


Fennimore, B. S. (2007). Know where you stand and stand there: everyday advocacy for

children of diversity. Childhood Education, v83.5, 294-298.

Lussier, D. (2009).  Theoretical bases of a conceptual framework with reference to intercultural communicative competence. Journal of Applied Linguistics,                        v4.3 2007, 309-332.

Mahoney, S. L. and Jon S.F. (2004). Exploring the application of a developmental model

of intercultural sensitivity to a general education curriculum on diversity. JGE: The Journal of General Education, v53.3, pg. 311-334


Samovar, et al. (2009). Intercultural communication: a reader: 393-401.