Imagine that your friend – who has been preparing for an important presentation for a couple of weeks – comes up to you and says, “I messed up my presentation and I’m pretty sure that the person I was trying to impress is really disappointed in me.”
How would you react? Would you reply with, “I think going through an upsetting situation like this will help you grow.” Or would you say something along the lines of, “It’s okay; you’re probably overreacting and the presentation went fine.” If you found yourself agreeing with any of these statements, chances are that you are not empathetic.
Empathy, as defined by the UC Berkley’s Greater Good Magazine, is the “ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” Commonly confused with sympathy, empathy is not enduring feelings of pity and sorrow or experiencing the exact same thing as another person. Instead, it is recognising what someone else is feeling, emotionally connecting with them, and taking some action to support or empathise with them.
While this may make the act of being empathetic seem effortless and straightforward, empathy is an extremely complex and multifaceted concept, yet a crucial skill to acquire. So, what makes up empathy, and, most importantly, why do we need to be empathetic?
There are three main types of empathy: cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and compassionate empathy. The combination of these three types of empathy do not only act as the foundation of empathy but are also the steps that an individual needs to take to whole-heartedly empathise with others.
Cognitive empathy, also known as empathetic accuracy, is the ability to determine and understand what a person is thinking and how they feel. It allows us to be better communicators and helps with a multitude of skills from negotiation to motivating others.
Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who specialises in emotional intelligence and behavioural sciences, explains how cognitive empathy is making educated guesses. It is thinking about what you know about others, how you think they would react to any given situation, and how they must be feeling. It is the first step to empathising with others.
Affective empathy, or emotional empathy, is the ability to use cognitive empathy to step into someone else’s shoes and try to experience what they are feeling to the best of your abilities. Start by considering all the things that someone else is feeling or thinking, and imagining how you would react if you were in their place.
By doing so, you are able to truly understand their needs, wants, emotions, and feelings and build deeper emotional connections with them. This, as well as becoming more aware of another person’s inner emotional world, is exactly what affective empathy helps us do.
Compassionate empathy, or empathic concern, is the final step in the process of empathising with others. Unlike the other two types mentioned before, compassionate empathy is a mix of emotions like sympathy, tenderness, and soft-heartedness that you exhibit. It’s the warm and compassionate emotional response you have when you feel for others.
Empathic concern urges people to spontaneously help others by connecting with them, recognising their feelings, and motivating them. Just like an activating agent in a chemical process, empathic concern encourages others to immediately take action and empathise.
Active listening is another skill that goes hand in hand with empathy. It can be defined as a way of listening and responding to another person that betters mutual understanding and trust and builds relationships. Active listening is dependent on a variety of factors, especially context and relationships, making it a complex and challenging skill to acquire.
Fortunately, there are three simple ways you can be a better active listener; let the other person know that you are interested in what they are saying, are willing to help them in whatever way they can, and let them know that you are not judging them.
By doing so, you can work towards wholeheartedly and truthfully listening to others, showing understanding and empathy, and building meaningful connections and relationships. Active listening allows us to encourage individuals to release their emotions and thoughts, and reduce tension and stress. It promotes open-mindedness and honesty, and creates a safer, more accepting environment – it allows us to reach the first step of empathising.
Empathy enables us to be compassionate towards our friends, family, peers, and even strangers. There are countless benefits of empathy like it helping us make social and emotional connections with others, teaching us how to regulate our emotions in a healthy way, and encouraging us to help others more often.
It’s the foundation of countless parts of life – like effective teamwork, collaboration, negotiations, healthy, long-lasting relationships, problem-solving, and much more. Empathy helps us communicate effectively and understand what others are feeling, why they are feeling it, and how we can help them.
Without empathy, people wouldn’t be able to consider what others are feeling and the reasoning behind the same. This leads to conflicts, misunderstandings, and people feeling misheard or undervalued in relationships.
Empathy can help create a more tolerant, compassionate and open-minded world. So, when that friend comes to you after their presentation, replace statements like “you’re probably overreacting” or “a situation like this will help you grow” with “how do you feel right now?” or “how can I help?”
Try to recognise what they are feeling and thinking. Remember how you felt when something similar happened to you and provide the type of support you would have wanted someone else to give you.
Here are some additional, simple ways to be more empathetic and making empathy an everyday habit:
Remember how important active listening is and how valued it can make the other person feel. Don’t explain how you would tackle the issue if you were in their place or how easily you can fix their problems. Don’t think about your response or whether or not it is empathetic. Don’t interrupt. To truly empathise with the other person, you need to wholeheartedly listen to them.
While it may be difficult to do so in certain situations, try your best to withhold any judgment. When someone opens up to you, it’s because they trust that you will listen to them and not judge. You need to make it your job to respond without any criticism or blame but do so with care. Ensure that you appreciate the fact that they are willing to be vulnerable with you.
Drawing back to the previous piece of advice, in some cases you may feel as if someone is not reacting the way you would expect them to. Don’t tell the other person that they are overreacting or being dramatic. Acknowledge what they are feeling and expressing, and try your best to understand.
When people share their feelings and struggles, they expect you to be interested. Even though allowing them to dominate the discussion is extremely important, you need to show that you want to get a better understanding of what the other person is going through. Ask them questions that will help them feel that you are genuinely interested; simple things to inquire how they feel or how they are coping with the situation.
This is where compassionate empathy comes into play. Instead of offering solutions to their problems, be encouraging, remind them that they are valued and loved and that they matter. Assure them that you are there for them and will try to help them in the best way you can. You need to be as supportive and encouraging as possible!
There aren’t any perfect rules for being empathetic and empathising with others. It’s very difficult to be empathetic, so all you can really do is listen and care the best you can. Practice working towards becoming a more empathetic person and make the world a kinder and more compassionate place!