- What is Empathy?
- 1. Understanding Others
- 2. Developing Others
- 3. Having a Service Orientation
- 4. Leveraging Diversity
- 5. Political Awareness
- Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion
- Three Types of Empathy
- Towards Empathy
- The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, Compassionate
- So let's begin with the basics: «What is the definition of empathy?»
- Cognitive Empathy
- Emotional Empathy
- Compassionate Empathy
- Being Authentic When Giving Empathy
What is Empathy?
See also: Types of Empathy
Empathy is, at its simplest, awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. It is a key element of Emotional Intelligence, the link between self and others, because it is how we as individuals understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves.
Empathy goes far beyond sympathy, which might be considered ‘feeling for’ someone. Empathy, instead, is ‘feeling with’ that person, through the use of imagination.
empathy n. the power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his experiences.
Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition
«[Empathy is] awareness of others’ feelings, needs and concerns.»
Daniel Goleman, in Working with Emotional Intelligence
«I call him religious who understands the suffering of others.»
«Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.»
Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence, says that empathy is basically the ability to understand others’ emotions. He also, however, notes that at a deeper level, it is about defining, understanding, and reacting to the concerns and needs that underlie others’ emotional responses and reactions.
As Tim Minchin noted, empathy is a skill that can be developed and, as with most interpersonal skills, empathising (at some level) comes naturally to most people.
Daniel Goleman identified five key elements of empathy.
- Understanding Others
- Developing Others
- Having a Service Orientation
- Leveraging Diversity
- Political Awareness
1. Understanding Others
This is perhaps what most people understand by ‘empathy’: in Goleman’s words, “sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns”. Those who do this:
- Tune into emotional cues. They listen well, and also pay attention to non-verbal communication, picking up subtle cues almost subconsciously. For more, see our pages on Listening Skills and Non-Verbal Communication.
- Show sensitivity, and understand others’ perspectives.Never criticize a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins.American Indian proverb
- Are able to help other people their understanding of those people’s needs and feelings.
All these are skills which can be developed, but only if you wish to do so. Some people may switch off their emotional antennae to avoid being swamped by the feelings of others.
For example, there have been a number of scandals in the National Health Service in the UK where nurses and doctors have been accused of not caring about patients. It may be that they were so over-exposed to patients’ needs, without suitable support, that they shut themselves off, for fear of being unable to cope.
For more, see our page on Understanding Others.
2. Developing Others
Developing others means acting on their needs and concerns, and helping them to develop to their full potential. People with skills in this area usually:
- Reward and praise people for their strengths and accomplishments, and provide constructive feedback designed to focus on how to improve. See our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback for more.
- Provide mentoring and coaching to help others to develop to their full potential. See our pages on Mentoring and Coaching Skills for more.
- Provide stretching assignments that will help their teams to develop. See our page on Delegation Skills.
There is also plenty about developing others on our Leadership Skills pages: look out in particular for Motivating Others, Creating a Motivational Environment, and Effective Team-Working Skills.
3. Having a Service Orientation
Primarily aimed at work situations, having a service orientation means putting the needs of customers first and looking for ways to improve their satisfaction and loyalty.
People who have this approach will ‘go the extra mile’ for customers. They will genuinely understand customers’ needs, and go their way to help meet them.
In this way, they can become a ‘trusted advisor’ to customers, developing a long-term relationship between customer and organisation. This can happen in any industry, and any situation.
There are many non-work situations which require us to help others in some way, where putting their needs centre-stage may enable us to see the situation differently and perhaps offer more useful support and assistance.
See our pages on Customer Service Skills and Customer Service Tips for more.
4. Leveraging Diversity
Leveraging diversity means being able to create and develop opportunities through different kinds of people, recognising and celebrating that we all bring something different to the table.
Leveraging diversity does not mean that you treat everyone in exactly the same way, but that you tailor the way you interact with others to fit with their needs and feelings.
People with this skill respect and relate well to everyone, regardless of their background.
As a general rule, they see diversity as an opportunity, understanding that diverse teams work much better than teams that are more homogeneous.
Our pages on Group and Team Roles and Effective Team-Working explain why diverse groups perform much better than homogeneous ones.
People who are good at leveraging diversity also challenge intolerance, bias and stereotyping when they see it, creating an atmosphere that is respectful towards everyone.
The Dangers of Stereotyping
Claude Steele, a psychologist at Stanford University, did a series of tests about stereotypes. He asked two groups of men and women to take a maths test. The first group was told that men usually did better in such tests than women. The second group was told nothing.
In the first group, where people had been reminded about the stereotype, the men performed significantly better than the women. There was no difference in the second group.
Steele suggested that being reminded of the stereotype activated emotional centres in the brain, resulting in anxiety among the women, which affected their performance. This shows how dangerous stereotypes can be, and how they can have a very real effect on performance.
For more about this skill, see our pages on Intercultural Awareness and Intercultural Communication.
5. Political Awareness
Many people view ‘political’ skills as manipulative, but in its best sense, ‘political’ means sensing and responding to a group’s emotional undercurrents and power relationships.
Political awareness can help individuals to navigate organisational relationships effectively, allowing them to achieve where others may previously have failed.
See our page on Political Awareness for more.
Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion
There is an important distinction between empathy, sympathy and compassion.
Both compassion and sympathy are about feeling for someone: seeing their distress and realising that they are suffering. Compassion has taken on an element of action that is lacking in sympathy, but the root of the words is the same.
Empathy, by contrast, is about experiencing those feelings for yourself, as if you were that person, through the power of imagination.
See our pages on Compassion and Sympathy for more.
Three Types of Empathy
Psychologists have identified three types of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy.
- Cognitive empathy is understanding someone’s thoughts and emotions, in a very rational, rather than emotional sense.
- Emotional empathy is also known as emotional contagion, and is ‘catching’ someone else’s feelings, so that you literally feel them too.
- Compassionate empathy is understanding someone’s feelings, and taking appropriate action to help.
For more about the different types of empathy, see our page on Types of Empathy.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Understanding and Developing Emotional Intelligence
Learn more about emotional intelligence and how to effectively manage personal relationships at home, at work and socially.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
It may not always be easy, or even possible, to empathise with others but, through good people skills and some imagination, we can work towards more empathetic feelings.
Research has suggested that individuals who can empathise enjoy better relationships with others and greater well-being through life.
I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who's hungry, the steelworker who's been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.
Barrack Obama — 2006
The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, Compassionate
Do you know what the three kinds of empathy are and how to express them? Empathy is a must-learn skill that brings more ease and understanding to your life and relationships!
When a student tells you they’re overwhelmed or your partner is working from home and stresses—do you respond with empathy? Or do you react?
Or how would you respond if your partner expressed fear, sadness, and anger telling you she got put on furlough or lost her job? And right after you dipped into savings to build an addition on your house! The ideal would be to respond thoughtfully and empathetically, but many of us react.
The thing is, not all empathy looks and feels the same; just not all sadness is the same; or happiness; or fear.
You may have questions : «Can a person have too much empathy?» Or «If I give empathy, will I take on the other person's emotions? Or «How can I give empathy without the person getting even more emotional? In this blog, we're going to cover the different kinds of empathy so you can choose what is appropriate for different relationships and situations.
Feel free to jump to what most resonates with you.
What Is Empathy?
Kinds of Empathy
Being Authentic When Giving Empathy
Learn Empathy through Practical Application
Empathy Means to Lean In with Compassion
This is a topic we’re impassioned about at Heartmanity, especially because empathy is so integral to emotional intelligence (EQ), being compassionate, and connecting with the people you love and work with.
Think about the happiness of a weekend off work versus the joy of a wedding or the twisted pleasure of Schadenfreude, German for the enjoyment of another’s misfortune.
Empathy has different facets, too. In fact, empathy also comes from a German word, Einfühlung, meaning “feeling in.” And just as there are many ways to feel; there are multiple ways to experience empathy.
So let's begin with the basics: «What is the definition of empathy?»
From an emotional researcher's standpoint, it's «the ability to sense other people's emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.»
From a human and vulnerability perspective and according to Brené Brown, «Empathy is communicating that incredible healing message of 'You're not alone.'»
The three types of empathy that psychologists have defined are: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that empathy is a relatively new idea and still being defined by social and cognitive psychologists.
As The Atlantic’s article “A Short History of Empathy” points out: “The term’s only been around for about a century—but over the course of its existence, its meaning has continually changed.
” If empathy is a murky concept to you, read our piece «What is Empathy and Why is it important?»
Empathy IS important. And the type of empathy that you express or experience matters as well.
Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate empathy all manifest in different ways.
Reflecting on your own experiences at home, at the office, or with friends and family, it probably won’t take long for you to notice the different types in your own life.
There are plentiful examples on TV, in politics and in pop culture to draw from as well; however, many of them exhibit a lack of emotional intelligence, too. See if you can tell the difference when a person is responding with empathy or not.
Can you learn empathy as an adult? Yes! A recent study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology shows that empathy training is effective. Dig in now to increase your skills.
Cognitive empathy definition: “Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking” ~Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence.
What it’s concerned with: Thought, understanding, intellect.
Benefits: Helps in negotiations, motivating other people, understanding diverse viewpoints, and is ideal for virtual meetings.
Pitfalls: Can be disconnected from or ignore deep emotions; doesn’t put you in another’s shoes in a felt sense.
Cognitive Empathy is about thought as much as emotion. It is defined by knowing, understanding, or comprehending on an intellectual level. As most of us know, to understand sadness is not the same thing as feeling sad.
I suspect that if I came home upset about losing a job, my partner would respond this way.
In the same way that a doctor can look at a sick patient and try to understand the parts of the illness rather than dive into the patient’s emotions—cognitive empathy responds to a problem with brainpower.
An engineer turns his brain into high gear in stressful situations. You could say it’s the way some people are wired, to understand emotions in terms of why they make sense for humans in certain situations.
This type of empathy can be a huge asset in circumstances where you need to “get inside another person’s head” or interact with tact and understanding. We talk about using cognitive empathy as a leader in our blog “Emotional Intelligence and Empathy in Leadership.
” On the other hand, cognitive empathy is in some ways mixing apples and oranges. To truly understand another person’s feelings, don’t you in some sense have to be able to feel them yourself? Therefore, those who respond with Cognitive Empathy can risk seeming cold or too detached.
Related topic: «What Is Emotional Intelligence?»
Enrich your life and relationships with our how-to workbook, «Real Empathy, Real Solutions: 4 Keys for Unlocking the Power of Empathy!
Emotional empathy definition: “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” ~Daniel Goleman
What it’s concerned with: feelings, physical sensation, mirror neurons in the brain.
Benefits: Helps in close interpersonal relationships and careers coaching, marketing, management and HR.
Pitfalls: Can be overwhelming, or inappropriate in certain circumstances.
Emotional Empathy, just is sounds, involves directly feeling the emotions that another person is feeling. You’ve probably heard of the term “empath,” meaning a person with the ability to fully take on the emotional and mental state of another. The quote that comes to mind is: “I have a lot of feelings.”
This type of response might seem disconnected from the brain and thinking, but as Goldman points out, emotional empathy is actually deeply rooted in a human’s mirror neurons.
All animals have neurons that fire in a certain way when they see another animal acting, making them relate to that action in their own body and brain.
Emotional empathy does exactly that with the feelings someone experiences in reaction to a situation.
When your partner—or anyone you deeply love—comes to you in tears, it’s a natural response to feel that pull on your heartstrings. crying at a wedding or cringing when someone stubs their toe, it’s a deep-seated, gut reaction that often feels a visceral human response. Connecting with another human in this way is intimate and can form a strong bond.
Cognitive Empathy, Emotional Empathy has its flip-side. “One downside of emotional empathy occurs when people lack the ability to manage their own distressing emotions,” writes Goleman. “[This] can be seen in the psychological exhaustion that leads to burnout.” Feeling too much can make even small interactions overwhelming.
For real-life examples of each kind of empathy, see «How to Talk to Someone with Empathy—and What to Avoid!»
Empathy definition: “With this kind of empathy we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.” ~Daniel Goleman
What it’s concerned with: Intellect, emotion, and action.
Benefits: Considers the whole person.
Pitfalls: Few—this is the type of empathy that we’re usually striving for!
The majority of the time, Compassionate Empathy is ideal.
Cognitive Empathy may be fitting for the workplace, monetary negotiations or surgeon’s offices; Emotional Empathy may be the first response with children and for our loved ones; Compassionate Empathy strikes a powerful balance of the two. In fact, it could even be used today for your teen doing hours of schoolwork online and feeling overwhelmed stuck at home with a pandemic.
Feelings of the heart and thoughts of the brain are not opposites. In fact, they’re intricately connected.
Compassionate Empathy honors the natural connection by considering both the felt senses and intellectual situation of another person without losing your center.
When your loved one comes to you in tears, you want to understand why she is upset and you also want to provide comfort by sharing in her emotional experience and hopefully helping her heal. It’s a lot to handle!
Many of us skew to one side or the other: more thinking or more feeling; more fixing or more commiserating.
Compassionate Empathy is taking the middle ground and using your emotional intelligence to effectively respond to the situation with loving detachment. We don't get sucked in and take on the person's burden or feeling. We balance mindfulness with compassionate caring and could be considered compassion when expressed genuinely.
Does your partner just need to be held? Does the situation call for quick action? Without either becoming overwhelmed by sadness or trying to fix things with logistics, compassion brings a mindful touch to tough situations.
The above three types of empathy are defined as foundational.
You may hear other names, references, and uses of empathy, such as, affective empathy (another way of identifying emotional empathy), somatic empathy (when we physically feel in our bodies others' experience), evaluative empathy, and perceptual empathy. Typically, these are unnecessary variances for most people and everyday use so we have not included them in this blog.
Being Authentic When Giving Empathy
When I think of empathy I often think of a teeter-totter. Go too far into another person’s psyche and do you risk losing yourself? Avoid being authentically interested in the person's experience and are you missing out on an integral part of the human experience? Is too much feeling inappropriate? Too little, hurtful?
The truth is, not all situations are the same just not all types of empathy are the same.
Can you think of one example of each type of empathy in your own life? Probably more than one. Hopefully, you’ve encountered compassionate empathy at some point!
Any type of empathy takes emotional fitness and practice—just any balancing act. When you find that sweet spot where you can empathize effectively, whether navigating a workplace hurdle or comforting a loved one, it is absolutely worth the work.
If you'd to learn more about empathy, it's one of Heartmanity's specialties!
Try out our popular workbook, Real Empathy, Real Solutions: 4 Keys to Unlocking the Power of Empathy.
For more customized support or to deep dive into empathy, contact us at Heartmanity to learn more about our coaching programs. Transforming lives is our business!
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