If you were to ask me; “Do you know what empathy is?”, I would say “Of course!”
Empathy feels like something we all just do as humanas. It feels like you have to instinctively and intuitively know what empathy is. Actually it’s more complex than that…
As a communication coach I know it is an essential part of the human-emotion-toolkit. However, more recently I’ve been learning that empathy is a multifaceted human behaviour.
Empathy is the warm hug that feels like they understand you.
Empathy is uninterrupted listening when you need to be heard.
Empathy is helping you move on from an upsetting situation.
Do you recognise any of these?
Empathetic behaviour has probably been with us for as long as we have been humans. However our naming of it, and our understanding of it is relatively young, just over a century. Susan Lanzoni writes a beautiful potted history in her article ‘A Short History Of Empathy, charting its meaning over the last 100 years or so as we have grappled to define it. She points out how: “Over its short history, the concept of empathy has been defined and redefined again and again.”
Think about the joy you felt when someone shared some good news with you about their life. Or when you understood someone’s point of view, even though it was conflicting with yours. Or coming up with a solution to a problem that is deeply affecting large numbers of people. These don’t feel like the same type of empathy do they?
Most recently empathy has been defined by three core ways of relating; Cognitive Empathy, Emotional Empathy and Compassionate Empathy.
Empathy is so important to human relationships, and even non-human relationships such as animals, nature and our planet as a whole. All three types occur and they all really matter a lot. Here’s why…
What’s the difference between these three types of empathy, and why do they matter so much?
Quality: Thinking, understanding, intellectual
Defined as: “Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking” – Daniel Goleman
Balanced: Wonderful for negotiations, discussions or debates. Also good for influencing people or groups, as you are able to see where they are coming from, and what might be their barriers to moving forward.
Unbalanced: On it’s own it can lead to an emotional detachment, sometimes bordering on not caring, even though you understand the problem the other person is facing.
Language style: “I can see how that would be difficult.” “I understand what you mean”
Why it matters: This type of empathy relies heavily on learned conceptual reasoning. It often occurs in traditional and hierarchical leadership roles such as political leaders, large corporation leaders, or even disaster response teams. Used on it’s own the issue is understood, but not felt. This emotional detachment can help stay calm under pressure, but can also be felt as a cool-indifference to suffering, and sometimes cause further suffering as a result.
Quality: Feelings, physical sensation, mirror neurons in the brain.
Defined as: “… when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” – Daniel Goleman
Balanced: Allows you to deeply feel and resonate with a person’s inner world and emotional state. It is at the heart of healthy interpersonal skills. A huge plus in many situations from sales to coaching, not to mention healthy romantic or familial relationships
Unbalanced: Always feeling other people’s emotions so strongly can cause psychological and emotional exhaustion, eventually leading to burnout. Having no filter on this kind of relating is sometimes referred to as being an Empath. Sonya Barrett describes it perfectly in her article The Curse Of Being An Empath. She says: “I liken it to being a sponge. You soak up external stimuli whether you mean to or not, which can leave you feeling vulnerable and helpless at times.”
Language style: “I know how that feels.” “I feel your pain.”
Why it matters: This way of relating uses our ‘social brain’, and nurtures rapport and chemistry between people. It is essential for connection in all areas of your life. If you are feeling separate from a group or person try tuning in to what other people may be feeling. Listening and looking for the emotional cues in an interaction will tell you a lot about a person’s inner world. Also sharing how you feel allows other people to connect with you more easily.
Centered around: Thinking, feeling, doing
Defined as: “…we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.” – Daniel Goleman
Balanced: Both Cognitive and Emotional empathy are at play here. This combined response leads to the richest way of relating. You understand what they are going through, you feel their pain and you are moved to directly help them.
Unbalanced: If this type is unbalanced you may find yourself with a Saviour Complex. Sarah A. Benton writes wisely about why “good intentions may have negative outcomes” in her blog The Savior Complex, offering some sound advice on how to avoid these pitfalls.
Language style: “How can I help?” “What do you need?”
Why it matters: This type of empathy uses our ancient mamelean system for parenting. It is similar to the love for a child. It draws upon the loving desire to help someone through their challenge. It can be tapped into for friends, colleagues, loved ones or even complete strangers. The person will truly feel that you have their back, and that they can rely on you in that moment and beyond.
This third way of relating uses cognitive empathy to understand what the problem is, and emotional empathy to respond sensitively. You are neither detached or overwhelmed, therefore able to tune into what is needed. Do they need a hug, or a more practical solution?
How can I practice and improve my empathy?
Empathy gets a lot better with practice. It’s core skills are around listening and responding. Give time to others, holding a spaciousness for them to express themselves, and listening for all the subtle nudges in your awareness. Notice which type you are drawn to most in your behaviour, and deliberately practice the other ones.
I spent a significant part of my early adult life being a Saviour. Learning to listen better and hold space for the other person without taking on their problem has helped me move to relating more through a balanced and Compassionate Empathy.
If you find empathy tricky, try gently internally asking yourself the following questions when with someone who is upset.
- What is the problem they are facing, and why is it so challenging?
- What are they feeling right now?
- What do they need?
- How can I support them?
These questions help you move through the different empathy types, and remind you to come back to listening and noticing the person in front of you.
What is your dominant empathy type?
I’d love to hear what you notice in yourself around these three different types.
Go well, stay safe and look after each other.