We have all had others come to us for support. Friends, family, and even colleagues trust each other by the nature of their relationships. Whether the relationship is personal or professional, a part of relationships is developing bonds through a connection that develops trust, closeness, and camaraderie. We lean on people to be there for us for life’s challenges and celebrate our joys and triumphs. What helps to create bonds in relationships is our ability to relate to and genuinely support others in a way that resonates with what they are experiencing.
Empathy is a skill and a tool to nurture connections in relationships. But not all methods of empathy are the same, just as not all relationships or challenges are the same. There are different types of empathy, and although all types are important and interconnected, the key to empathy is choosing the best empathetic response for a given situation and relationship.
Three Types of Empathy
Cognitive – Cognitive empathy is rooted in thinking and reason. Cognitive means of, relating to, being, or involving conscious intellectual activity and is derived from the Latin phrase “get to know.” This type of empathy is about perspective, for example, attempting to understand the plight of another through reasoning. The ability to intellectually understand how a person feels and what they might be experiencing is cognitive. Cognitive empathy uses our communication skills as it helps us share information in a way that others can relate to:
- Offering encouragement and support to a very skilled co-worker who wasn’t selected for a promotion
- Celebrating with a friend who won a cooking contest that she worked hard to achieve
- Understanding the dilemma of your spouse who needs to work and miss his child’s sporting event.
These are intellectual yet supportive of each situation.
Emotional – Emotional empathy is about understanding what someone may be experiencing and sharing their feelings and emotional experience. The most effective use of this form of empathy allows space for sharing an emotional ordeal with another person while also not letting our own emotions affect our response. This type of empathy helps build an emotional connection with others:
- A neighbor who just lost a beloved pet and comes to you for support, knowing that you lost a pet a few months before. The situation may create feelings and memories of your loss that allow you to connect emotionally better.
- A friend just got engaged to a mutual friend of yours. You are genuinely excited about their engagement. You look forward to their future as a couple and your relationship because of your deep friendship with both.
Compassionate – Compassionate empathy is the type of empathy that moves us to help actively in any way we can. Compassionate empathy combines the intellectual aspects of cognitive empathy and feelings of emotional empathy to create action. When you can easily identify what is needed and how you can help, you can choose to act more powerfully.
- Stopping to help someone on the side of the road with a flat tire
- Offering to chip in when a person in front of us at the coffee shop is short on their bill.
The goal of all empathy is for the person on the receiving end to feel understood, safe, and to feel that the person supporting them genuinely cares about them and their situation. Whether or not this is achieved depends on the type of empathy chosen. Although all kinds of empathy are useful, selecting the correct form fosters understanding between people, creates a shared experience, and greater connection.
Balancing Empathetic Approaches to Create Genuine Connection
All types of empathy have a role in creating genuine connections with others. Think of empathy like your five senses of sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. Each has an essential role in how you relate to the world around you, but none is one hundred percent needed or relied upon in all situations.
Let us look at this concept in terms of a meal. When you sit down to a meal, all your senses are working together to experience the food. Each sense is perceiving information about your meal and the experience. Your sense of taste weighs heavily in the experience of a meal. However, the appearance may be unappealing, or the smell might be repugnant to you. If you relied only on one sense, you would have a completely different perception and experience of your meal.
Can you imagine what it would be like to experience a meal by only touching it? The sense of touch doesn’t supply enough information on its own to create a full-measured experience of the meal. But touch, along with the other senses, produces an enhanced experience.
The types of empathy are similar; one may be more appropriate than another in interactions to create more connection with others. Similarly, relying only on one type of empathy with all people and all situations or not being empathetic can create a disconnection or create a negative experience even when you were only trying to help.
What Happens When We Empathize Ineffectively?
What happens when we make the wrong choice when empathizing? The support might not resonate with who we are trying to connect with or help. The types of empathy expressed when matching the situation and the relationship help the other person feel understood. Not all empathy looks and feels the same. Being responsive to circumstances, situations, people, and relationships determine if your support will be well received.
Here are two examples of mismatched empathy:
- Being too intellectual when others are feeling very emotional can be construed as uncaring.
- An overly emotional response can detract from another person’s experience.
In both cases, there is a mismatch in the empathy approach. Leaning too heavily on one form of empathy when another may be more effective can create a disconnect and leave others feeling misunderstood and unimportant.
Related Reading: "How to Talk to Someone with Empathy—and What to Avoid!"
Selecting the Right Approach to Empathy
The key to approaching empathy in the right way is about having a clear awareness of the person, relationship, situation, and our own emotions. All forms of empathy have a time and a place. Supporting a friend when they are having relationship issues may be tough if you just went through a breakup yourself. It might not be a time when you can empathize because your own emotions may be too raw to be of support. Or when a co-worker is crying at their desk right after walking out of the boss’ office may not be the right time to share support.
An ideal approach to empathy is fluidly moving through each type of empathy as needed. Understanding what someone else is experiencing, putting yourself in their shoes, genuinely sharing emotions, then taking effective action are solid and fluid ways to empathize.
Dynamically using the different types of empathy has powerful effects. An article by Verywell Mind, aptly lists the skills that are strengthened by using all types of empathy in a balanced manner:
- Emotional connection
- Feeling safe
- Identifying needs
- Meeting needs
Sharpening skills around empathy and learning how to respond most helpfully have the power to transform all relationships. Empathy nurtures skills in varying areas of life and helps to develop strong connections and trust with others. It’s an in-depth and diverse topic—one of Heartmanity’s specialties! If empathy is a new topic for you and you want to learn more about this topic, check out our workbook, Real Empathy, Real Solutions: 4 Keys to Unlocking the Power of Empathy.
For personalized support, contact us at support@Heartmanity.com to learn more about our coaching programs.