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What is empathy?

Collection: Advanced Communication Skills Series

In fact, there are three types of empathy that people can have:

1. The first type is ‘cognitive empathy’ – this gives us the ability to understand how someone is feeling. If your friend’s home has been burgled, you can put yourself in her shoes and understand that she will feel upset and angry at what has happened to her. With this type of empathy, you are not feeling upset or angry yourself, you are simply able to understand her emotional response and see the situation from her perspective.

2. The second type is ‘emotional empathy’ – this is how we respond to the situation and involves directly feeling the emotions that another person is experiencing. The discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ explains why we feel upset when we see someone crying or why we recoil when we witness someone being physically attacked. Mirror neurons are brain cells that respond in exactly the same way, whether we experience something ourselves, or whether we see someone else experience it. If you are demonstrating emotional empathy, you will be feeling upset and angry about your friend’s home being burgled. This type of empathy can also have a dark side – feeling too much can tip us into depression or even burnout.

3. The third is ‘compassionate empathy’ – this is about knowing how to respond in a particular situation. Does your friend need a shoulder to cry on, or is she looking for someone to contact the insurance company, or would she appreciate your help with sorting out the mess her home is in? Compassionate empathy gives us the ability to know in the moment what someone needs from us most. This is the type of empathy most people want to be better at.

Let’s take another example to demonstrate the differences between the three types of empathy. You might see a news bulletin about the terrible situation of families under siege in their country trying to flee the devastation and destruction that surrounds them. You can understand how desperate and frightened they must be feeling (cognitive empathy). You may also feel a deep sense of anger or upset at how these human beings are being treated with such disregard (emotional empathy). If you are able to show compassionate empathy you will also take action, however small. You might donate money to a charity, write to your local MP or sign an online petition, volunteer for a charity to support their fundraising efforts, arrange a fundraiser of your own or take part in a protest march.

In a world that can all too often focus on difference over similarity, distrust (or even hatred) of those unlike us, and individualism, there is an ever greater need to develop empathy. In our next article we’ll consider why empathy is good for business.

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