What is Empathy?
It’s late on a Friday night and you’re relaxing after a hectic week, reading your favorite book on the couch when your phone rings. It’s a close friend from college calling in a panic because she’s just lost her job. “Don’t worry, you’ll find another soon,” you say, “besides, you knew your company was having financial problems, didn’t you expect this? Why are you so upset now?” There’s a stunned silence on the other end of the line, followed by a dropped call.
You thought you were trying to comfort her so what went wrong? Without first empathizing with her, and listening to her concerns, you might have done more harm than good.
So, what is empathy? It’s the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings in a situation from their point of view, rather than your own. It differs from sympathy, where one is moved by the thoughts and feelings of another but maintains an emotional distance.
The difference between sympathy and empathy is astutely portrayed in this clip from RSA Animate, that narrates an excerpt from Dr. Brene Brown’s TED talk on empathy. She explains that sympathy is to see someone in a deep hole, but remaining on higher ground and talking to them from above. The sympathetic person may also try to simply put a silver lining on the other person’s situation instead of acknowledging the person’s pain. Conversely, empathy is feeling with the person, it’s climbing down the hole to sit beside them, making yourself vulnerable to sincerely connect with them. The empathetic person will recognize the person’s struggle without minimizing it. For more from Brene Brown, check out this YouTube video.
Empathy is an enormous concept. Renowned psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman have identified three components of empathy: Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate. We will briefly discuss them below. By learning how to empathize with your friends, coworkers, and those around you, using these three types of empathy, you build stronger relationships and trust.
Cognitive Empathy: “Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking.”
If you imagine yourself in your friend’s shoes, you know she is likely to be feeling sad, as well as anxious because she relies on that income to pay her student loans. However, having only cognitive empathy keeps you at a distance from your friend. To truly connect with your friend, you need to share their feelings. This is where emotional empathy comes in.
Emotional Empathy: “When you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.”
This type of empathy can also extend to physical sensations, which is why we cringe when someone else stubs their toe. In this case, you would look inwards to identify a situation where you were similarly anxious about the future. The situation itself need not be identical, as each individual is different. What’s important is that the emotions resulting from the situation are the same.
So, you’ve successfully understood what your friend is feeling, and put yourself in a similar emotional space. Now what? Well, you can use the insights gleaned from Cognitive and Emotional empathy to have Compassionate Empathy.
Compassionate Empathy: “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.”
It is the balance between Cognitive and Emotional Empathy that enables us to act without being overcome with feeling or jumping straight into a problem solving process.
Putting it all together
Empathy doesn’t just happen naturally for a lot of people. Our fast-paced society does not often encourage us to take a moment to connect with others. It is therefore a conscious choice we have to make, but the more we practice empathy, the more intuitive it becomes.
The benefits of empathy cannot be overstated, especially in professions such as healthcare and teaching, where you are responsible for the wellbeing of many individuals, both young and old. In healthcare, a 2016 study from Massachusetts General Hospital found empathy to be the distinguishing factor in medical care satisfaction. Empathy enables clinicians to connect on a deeper level with patients, and hence act in their patient’s best interests.
Now that we’ve got the basics of empathy covered, we’ll discuss how to practice empathy in our daily lives and some of the barriers to practicing empathy in our next blog post.
To end off, here’s an outstanding video produced by the Cleveland Clinic. While this video is filmed in a hospital setting, its message is relevant to all aspects of our daily lives. It is summed up in this quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Attributed to Ian Maclaren, as well as Plato and Philo of Alexandria.
This is part one of a two part series on empathy. To see the second part, click here. This blog is intended for learning purposes only, and is not a study guide for the CASPer test.