What is Empathy?

See also: Types of Empathy

Empathy is, at its simplest, awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. It is a key element of Emotional Intelligence, the link between self and others, because it is how we as individuals understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves.

Empathy goes far beyond sympathy, which might be considered ‘feeling for’ someone. Empathy, instead, is ‘feeling with’ that person, through the use of imagination.

Some Definitions of Empathy

empathy n. the power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his experiences.

Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition

"[Empathy is] awareness of others’ feelings, needs and concerns."

Daniel Goleman, in Working with Emotional Intelligence

"I call him religious who understands the suffering of others."

Mahatma Gandhi

"Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually."

Tim Minchin

Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence, says that empathy is basically the ability to understand others’ emotions. He also, however, notes that at a deeper level, it is about defining, understanding, and reacting to the concerns and needs that underlie others’ emotional responses and reactions.

As Tim Minchin noted, empathy is a skill that can be developed and, as with most interpersonal skills, empathising (at some level) comes naturally to most people.

Elements of Empathy

Daniel Goleman identified five key elements of empathy.

  1. Understanding Others
  2. Developing Others
  3. Having a Service Orientation
  4. Leveraging Diversity
  5. Political Awareness

1. Understanding Others

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 moccasins.

    American Indian proverb

  • 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.

For more, see our page on Understanding Others.

2. Developing Others

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.

  • Provide stretching assignments that will help their teams to develop. See our page on Delegation Skills.

There is also plenty about developing others on our Leadership Skills pages: look out in particular for Motivating Others, Creating a Motivational Environment, and Effective Team-Working Skills.

3. 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.

There are many non-work situations which require us to help others in some way, where putting their needs centre-stage may enable us to see the situation differently and perhaps offer more useful support and assistance.

See our pages on Customer Service Skills and Customer Service Tips for more.

4. Leveraging Diversity

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. 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.

For more about this skill, see our pages on Intercultural Awareness and Intercultural Communication.

5. Political Awareness

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.

See our page on Political Awareness for more.

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.

See our pages on Compassion and Sympathy for more.

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.
For more about the different types of empathy, see our page on Types of Empathy.

Understanding and Developing Emotional Intelligence

Further Reading from Skills You Need

Understanding and Developing Emotional Intelligence

Learn more about emotional intelligence and how to effectively manage personal relationships at home, at work and socially.

Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.

Towards Empathy

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