Understanding the Three Types of Empathy to Increase Emotional Intelligence

Empathy. What is it? One of the best descriptions of empathy comes from Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, outlined in this short animated video.  I highly recommend it!

According to psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, empathy is a necessary component of emotional intelligence.  If emotional intelligence is the key attribute that separates excellent leaders from average leaders, it’s important to try and understand what makes a person empathic. Goleman identifies three types of empathy, each of which are essential for effective leadership:

  1. Cognitive Empathy: the ability to understand another's perspective. This requires leaders to think about their feelings rather than feel them directly. Emotionally intelligent and effective leaders are aware of their feelings and can explain them.

  2. Emotional Empathy: the ability to physically feel what another person feels. This type of empathy helps people feel attuned to another person’s emotions, and provides the ability to feel others’ emotions quickly without thinking deeply.

  3. Empathic Concern: the ability to sense what another needs from you.  Empathic concern is “other-oriented” in the sense that it involves feeling for the other person. Excellent leaders have a keen sense of being present with others.  

When Empathy Needs to be Learned

I often get asked if empathy can be developed.  The answer is yes!  Helen Riess, Harvard Medical School Professor and Founder of Empathetics, set up a program in which people learned to focus using deep breathing and by cultivating a detachment. The task was to watch an interaction from an outsider’s perspective, which allowed the person to fully observe and digest what was happening instead of being immersed in emotions or feeling reactive.

You can see if your own physiology is charged up or balanced.  You can notice what is transpiring in a situation.  Suspending your involvement in an interaction to better understand what’s happening provides a mindful awareness of the interaction, instead of being lost in your own thoughts and feelings.  says Riess. 

When Empathy Needs to be Controlled

As Goleman shares what makes a focused leader, he says that having control of our impulse to empathize with other people’s feelings can help us make better decisions when someone’s emotions overwhelm us.

Physicians learn in medical school to block automatic responses, which is what happens in your brain when you distance yourself from others in order to stay calm and help them.  "This system helps people understand the other’s perspective intellectually by shifting from the heart-to-heart of emotional empathy to the head-to-heart of cognitive empathy."

Which Do You Lead With?

Consider that there is a head, heart and gut component to empathy, so focusing on cognitive (head), emotional (heart) empathy is only part of the equation and people may gravitate naturally to one of the three types of empathy more consistently.   I invite you to notice when you are engaging in one component of empathy or a combination of the three.  At Culture Conscious, we look at full-body problem solving and analyze creative ways to cultivate emotional intelligence for both professional and personal growth.