What is Empathy?
The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety.
“Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.
Empathy seems to have deep roots in our brains and bodies, and in our evolutionary history. Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats.
Empathy has been associated with two different pathways in the brain, and scientists have speculated that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, cells in the brain that fire when we observe someone else perform an action in much the same way that they would fire if we performed that action ourselves.
Research has also uncovered evidence of a genetic basis to empathy, though studies suggest that people can enhance (or restrict) their natural empathic abilities.
Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need, though it’s often a vital first step toward compassionate action.
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
Are able to help other people based on 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.
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.
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 out of 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.
Mercedes Benz: No More Satisfied Customers
Mercedes-Benz, the car manufacturer, is no longer interested in achieving customer satisfaction.
That does not mean that customer experience is not important to Mercedes. Quite the opposite. It means that customer experience is so important that satisfaction is not enough. Instead, the company wants its customers to feel delighted by their experience with Mercedes.
The company’s president and CEO believe that engaging Mercedes employees is key to achieving that. For example, a recent company poll found that 70% of employees had never driven a Mercedes. They are now being given the opportunity to do so, so that they can better empathise with customers, and therefore engage with them more effectively.
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.<6>
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 like 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
M I Ro