May 6, 2020 | Empathy

May 6, 2020 | Empathy

So what is it?

When we talk about empathy we are focusing on a way of understanding another’s perspective by vicariously experiencing their emotions. This is often referred to as ‘putting oneself in another’s shoes’. However, this phrase can be misleading, for we need to experience things as the other person rather than as our self in the other person’s shoes. Once this is achieved, we feel what they feel and can begin to process what we are learning about how they feel. All of this happens before we respond and we can of course choose our response. Our response may not always be a compassionate one. As humans we are likely to respond pro-socially, however, this response is not assured. Taking the perspective of a competitor, for example, may inform a strategy against them that is anything but pro-social. Thankfully, most of the time we employ empathy to make connections and grow our relationships. 


All kinds of relationships can be improved with empathy, and these may be in social settings, or in professional arenas between leaders and followers, or employees and customers. Moreover, relationships can be enhanced to bring a team closer together. Empathic individuals are psychologically in tune with others’ feelings and perspectives, and whatever the situation, this hands them a clear advantage.

Cognitive and Affective

Psychologists have separated empathy into cognitive empathy where one understands the feelings and intentions of another, and affective or emotional empathy, an automatic feeling response that  occurs before conscious awareness. Cognitive empathy is a more controlled process where the empathiser is likely to suffer less emotionally, if at all. An example of cognitive empathy is mentalising or perspective taking, which represents motivated attempts to understand without experiencing the emotions or the other.


The word empathy is often linked with other words that are thought to describe similar things and so distinguishing them is important. Firstly, Sympathy, which describes concern for another person’s emotional state, without it having impacting one’s own. To sympathise is to feel for but not like another.  Secondly, Compassion,  a feeling that arises after witnessing another’s suffering, which motivates a desire to help. Whereas empathy is about understanding the feelings and perspective, compassion is focused on a concern for the plight of an individual. Compassion is feeling for and not with the other. It has been said that compassion consists of sympathy and, thirdly, pity. Pity is a feeling of sadness or sympathy for someone’s unhappiness or difficulty. It is worth remembering that both compassion and pity are more closely related to sympathy, as they are concerned with feelings towards someone’s plight rather than shared feelings or experiences of it. These other words describe valuable aspects of humanity, but it is empathy that initiates understanding and therefore connection.

Peter Sear, Founder, The Empathic Minds Organisation


Brené Brown explains more

To make things clearer, here’s Brené Brown explaining the differences between empathy and sympathy, at the RSA:

Why Empathy?

To make things clearer, here’s Brené Brown explaining the differences between empathy and sympathy, at the RSA.

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