“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” ~Alfred Alder
You may have heard Alder’s description of empathy before, but did you know there are three types of empathy? That’s right! There’s Emotional Empathy, Compassionate Empathy, and Cognitive Empathy, and each one has its uses. This series of posts will explore each type of empathy in depth so you can better recognize and utilize them.
Let’s begin with Emotional Empathy. When someone uses the quote above or calls themselves an “empath,” they’re typically referring to emotional empathy. But what is emotional empathy, exactly, and how can you develop it?
What Is Emotional Empathy?
Emotional empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling and to walk in their shoes figuratively. Some folks can do this naturally and are often described as an empath or a highly sensitive person (HSP).
An empath is a person that experiences emotions of others sometimes to an extreme and struggles to intellectualize their feelings. Similarly, a highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone that feels too much too intensely. Their nervous system processes information over and over again that may lead to them being overstimulated by their environment. Empaths and HSPs can also absorb the emotions of people who aren’t expressing them. In fact, 15-20% of people are considered empaths or HSPs.
The extent to which someone naturally experiences Emotional Empathy may lie in their mirror neurons. According to the American Psychological Association, mirror neurons are “a type of brain cell that responds equally when we perform an action, and when we witness someone else perform the same action.” Neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD, who first identified mirror neurons by researching monkeys, says that these neurons could help explain how we learn from mimicking others and why we can instinctively feel other people's emotions.
For example, if you’ve ever slipped and fallen on ice, you know how painful and silly the experience can be. You may feel embarrassed or shocked. So when you see your friend do the same thing, you re-experience those same feelings. That’s because, in both instances, the same part of your brain has activated. You will instinctively understand how your friend feels because you feel it, too.
To see if you’re an empath or HSP, try this quiz!
Close Relationships Need Emotional Empathy
All close interpersonal relationships depend on emotional empathy. This correlation means that from home to work and in between, learning to utilize emotional empathy effectively is very important.
For example, as a parent, you might need to leverage emotional empathy to relate to your child’s difficult day on the playground or your teen who is overwhelmed with homework. You’ll need emotional empathy to help them process their experience and accompanying emotions. Or, as an employee or leader, emotional empathy can help you pick up on your colleagues’ moods and allow you to adjust your own behavior accordingly if needed.
People who utilize emotional empathy effectively are often natural caregivers and compassionate parents. Also, they can be beloved managers, marketers, or HR professionals because they can notice signs of stress in colleagues early and can intervene or devise a solution before a problem grows out of control.
Sometimes, Emotional Empathy Can Be Taxing
On the flip side, emotional empathy can take a toll on a person’s emotional well-being. For example, if you experience emotional empathy to an extreme and are unable to separate your feelings from those around you, social situations may be very draining. You might always be on the lookout for others’ unspoken emotions or behaviors and spend your mental and emotional energy over-analyzing them.
Emotional empathy becomes especially problematic when you focus on another person’s burdens and challenges more than your own. You can’t help or be fully present to someone else if you are gasping for emotional oxygen. As everyone has heard on airplane flights dozens of times: “you need to put your oxygen mask on before assisting others.” Even though we may tune these words out because we’ve heard the saying so often, it doesn’t make them any less true. In careers like nursing, it's vital to nurture and care for oneself to maintain mental and emotional health.
Related reading: "How to Talk with Empathy—and What to Avoid!"
How to Develop Emotional Empathy
If you struggle to maintain close emotional relationships, you may need to work on developing emotional empathy. Thankfully you don’t have to be an empath to have emotional empathy. Emotional empathy is a skill that can be learned.
Try some of these techniques from our self-coaching course Real Empathy, Real Solutions:
- Put yourself in their shoes: Before responding, ask yourself, “What would I do if I was in the other person’s situation? How would I feel?”
- Don’t react with feeling stoppers: Feeling stoppers are common responses to another’s emotional crisis to help the other person feel better quickly or to prevent feeling uncomfortable ourselves. They are the knee-jerk reactions such as expressing pity, coming to the rescue or denying that the other person’s emotion or problem is legitimate.
- Build an empathetic response: The next time a friend vents to you about a problem, try to:
- See the world as they see it.
- Commit to being nonjudgmental.
- Try to understand the other person’s feelings.
- Communicate your understanding of those feelings.
- Get curious if you don’t understand.
To practice emotional empathy in your life, try one of the above strategies. And if you’d like to learn more, download Real Empathy, Real Solutions now, and stay tuned for Part II: Cognitive Empathy.
For more customized support, contact us at Heartmanity to learn more about our coaching programs.