Types of Empathy

See also: Understanding Others

Our page on empathy defines empathy as ‘feeling with’ someone – being able to put yourself in their place as if you were them, and feeling those feelings. It explains that there are several different elements that make up empathy.

There are also, however, different types of empathy that have been defined by psychologists. These are cognitive, emotional and compassionate empathy.

This page explains what is meant by each of these types if empathy. It also explains how and why it is possible to demonstrate one or more of the three types of empathy, yet still come across as uncaring.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy, also known as ‘perspective-taking’ is not really what most of us would think of as empathy at all.

Cognitive empathy is basically being able to put yourself into someone else’s place, and see their perspective.

It is a useful skill, particularly in negotiations for example, or for managers. It enables you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but without necessarily engaging with their emotions. It does not, however, really fit with the definition of empathy as ‘feeling with’, being a much more rational and logical process.

Effectively, cognitive empathy is ‘empathy by thought’, rather than by feeling.

A Dark Side to Cognitive Empathy

It is possible to show cognitive empathy without having any fellow-feeling or sympathy with it. It is fair to say that most of us would understand this fellow-feeling to be a key part of empathy.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, notes in his blog that torturers would need to have good cognitive empathy to work out how best to hurt someone, but without having any sympathy towards them.

Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy is when you quite literally feel the other person’s emotions alongside them, as if you had ‘caught’ the emotions.

Emotional empathy is also known as ‘personal distress’ or ‘emotional contagion’. This is closer to the usual understanding of the word ‘empathy’, but more emotional.

Emotional empathy is probably the first type of empathy that any of us feel as children. It can be seen when a mother smiles at her baby, and the baby ‘catches’ her emotion and smiles back. Less happily, perhaps, a baby will often start to cry if he or she hears another baby crying.

Emotional Empathy can be both Good and Bad

  • Emotional empathy is good because it means that we can readily understand and feel other people’s emotions. This is vital for those in caring professions, such as doctors and nurses, to be able to respond to their patients appropriately. It also means that we can respond to friends and others when they are distressed.

  • Emotional empathy is bad, because it is possible to become overwhelmed by those emotions, and therefore unable to respond. This is known as empathy overload, and is explained in more detail in our page on Understanding Others. Those with a tendency to become overwhelmed need to work on their self-regulation, and particularly their self-control, so that they become better able to manage their own emotions.

Good self-control helps doctors and nurses to avoid possible burnout from empathising too much. There is a danger, however, that they can become ‘hardened’ and not respond appropriately. There have been several recent cases in the UK, such as in South Staffordshire, where nurses and others were accused of being uncaring. This may have been a possible result of over-protection against empathy overload.

Compassionate Empathy

Finally, compassionate empathy is what we usually understand by empathy: feeling someone’s pain, and taking action to help.

The name, compassionate empathy, is consistent with what we usually understand by compassion. Like sympathy, compassion is about feeling concern for someone, but with an additional move towards action to mitigate the problem.

Compassionate empathy is the type of empathy that is usually most appropriate.

As a general rule, people who want or need your empathy don’t just need you to understand (cognitive empathy), and they certainly don’t need you just to feel their pain or, worse, to burst into tears alongside them (emotional empathy).

Instead, they need you to understand and sympathise with what they are going through and, crucially, either take, or help them to take, action to resolve the problem, which is compassionate empathy.

Finding the Balance

Cognitive empathy can often be considered under-emotional.

It involves insufficient feeling, and therefore perhaps too much logical analysis. It may be perceived as an unsympathetic response by those in distress.

Emotional empathy, by contrast, is over-emotional.

Too much emotion or feeling can be unhelpful. As our page on Managing Emotions explains, emotions are very primitive. Feeling strong emotions, especially distress, takes us back to childhood. More or less by definition, that makes us less able to cope, and certainly less able to think and apply reason to the situation. It is very hard to help anyone else if you are overcome by your own emotions.

In exercising compassionate empathy, we can find the right balance between logic and emotion.

We can feel another person’s pain, as if it was happening to us, and therefore express the appropriate amount of sympathy.

At the same time, we can also remain in control of our own emotions, and apply reason to the situation.

This means that we can make better decisions and provide appropriate support to them when and where it is necessary.

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