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The 3 Types of Empathy Explained: Part II, Cognitive Empathy

Welcome to the second part of the in-depth series on the types of empathy. In Part 1, you learned about Emotional Empathy. Now, it’s time to explore Cognitive Empathy. In the next blog, we’ll cover Compassionate Empathy.

To begin, think about all the people in your life. Is there someone you turn to when you need a solution to a problem? Someone who can cut through your emotional mess and help you formulate a plan of action? These go-to problem-solvers often rely on cognitive empathy to make sense of other people’s struggles. 

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Co-workers conversing and empathizingWhat Is Cognitive Empathy?

Cognitive empathy is a characteristic of emotional intelligence or EQ, and it is especially useful in leadership and the workplace. In this post, you’ll learn what cognitive empathy is and the appropriate ways to utilize it.

Cognitive Empathy means you know and understand another’s problem on an intellectual level without taking on their emotions as your own. Cognitive empathy allows you to respond to another person's emotions in terms of logic more than feelings. It’s a form of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), which Psychology Today defines as “the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.”  

According to Psychology Today, emotional intelligence includes three essential skills:

  • Achieving emotional awareness or the ability to identify and name your own emotions.
  • Harnessing those emotions and applying them to tasks like thinking and problem-solving.
  • Managing emotions, which includes both regulating your feelings and helping others to do the same.

A person must be able to identify the varying emotions, manage their emotions, and apply thinking skills to modulate both their own and another person's feelings to exercise this type of empathy.

For example, a legal mediator may need to help a married couple sort through their big feelings surrounding a divorce. For most, this would be an emotionally taxing experience full of tension and hurt feelings. The mediator needs to understand the couple’s emotions while remaining calm and detached themselves. If the mediator were to start yelling or crying, the negotiations would come to a screeching halt.

Do you know your level of emotional intelligence? Take this test to find out.

For a more elaborate understanding of emotional intelligence, you may find Heartmanity's article "What Is Emotional Intelligence?" very helpful. 

Uses for Cognitive Empathy

As you may have already guessed, cognitive empathy can be particularly useful in workplace situations such as negotiations, motivating others, and understanding others’ diverse points of view. This type of empathy is also needed and used by teachers and professors regularly.

Leader giving empathy to an employeeLeaders and employees who have strong cognitive empathy or high emotional EQ skills can get inside another person’s head to understand what they truly want or what they’re trying to communicate. It can be incredibly supportive to understand what another feels and deliver just the right amount of support. This type of empathy gives clarity and insight to help recenter the person.

Cognitive empathy is critical to many workplaces because it helps resolve conflicts, build productive teams, and improve relationships with colleagues and customers. When used effectively, cognitive empathy makes the other person feel as though you are lifting them out of a quagmire and into clarity.

Does Cognitive Empathy Ever Backfire?

In short, no. However, feeling stoppers can masquerade as cognitive empathy. If someone takes emotional detachment to an extreme or is disconnected from their own emotions, the person may focus only on finding an expedient solution instead of an effective one. In these instances, the emotional detachment can appear callous and block an opportunity to connect with the other person in a meaningful way. For instance, the person listening may be uncomfortable with the feelings being expressed and move to fix the problem as a way to divert from the emotional conversation.

Cognitive empathy needs to contain a dash of compassion to be received well. The intention of the person also needs to be to be present and help rather than only offer solutions.

Related reading: "The Three Kinds of Empathy: Cognitive, Emotional, and Empathy."

How to Develop Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is an essential emotional intelligence skill for leaders and professional success. However, the same principles apply in all areas of life, whether at work or at home.

A great way to improve your cognitive empathy or EQ is to start with an awareness exercise. Get a notebook or journal and do the following:

Steps of Learning Empathy

1. OBSERVE your thoughts without judgment for one week.

2. REPLACE negative or anxious thoughts with encouraging thoughts.

3. RESERVE 15-20 minutes daily to rest your mind and focus inward with introspection.

4. TURN UP the volume of your intuition and listen more carefully.

5. PRACTICE reflective listening with your family and friends or co-workers. 

To continue to improve your cognitive empathy, practice one or more of these strategies consistently. For a better understanding and practical step-by-step guide, download Real Empathy, Real Solutions—and stay tuned for the third and final post in this series, Compassionate Empathy.

For more customized support, contact us at support@Heartmanity to learn more about our coaching programs.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity founder and an emotional intelligence expert. She has two decades of EQ experience and is the author of emotional intelligence training and courses. As an emotional fitness coach, Jennifer teaches EQ skills, brain science hacks, and a comprehensive approach that gets results. She is happily married and the mother of three incredible grown children.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence, How to Build Empathy

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