The adage, “think with your head, not with your heart,” would make you think that emotional empathy (Part I of this series) and cognitive empathy (Part II of this series) cannot coexist. Luckily, that’s not true! When the heart and mind meet in the middle, the third type of empathy comes alive—Compassionate Empathy.
Compassionate empathy is the antithesis of knee-jerk reactions and it is often the ideal response to challenging situations as this skill blends intellect, emotion, and action by considering the whole person. By developing compassionate empathy, you’ll go beyond a simple understanding of interactions, whether emotional or intellectual. You’ll be able to nurture a deeper connection with others and feel comfortable no matter what another person is sharing with you.
What Is Compassionate Empathy?
Compassionate empathy is the ability to understand and share in someone else’s emotions, but without taking them on as your own emotions or blurring the line between you and another person. It uses emotional intelligence to effectively respond to a situation without becoming overwhelmed or trying to fix anything. It empowers the other person to step into their own power.
Whereas cognitive empathy may be the best response in intellectual debates and emotional empathy may shift into gear when it comes to our loved ones, compassionate empathy is what we at Heartmanity consider to be the ideal response to most situations. That’s because it considers the whole person.
When we say that compassionate empathy “considers the whole person,” we mean that compassionate empathy:
- Aims to connect with the other person, see the world through their eyes, and understand their feelings without an overlay of your emotions.
- Focuses on the other person with gentle curiosity and without being attached to a specific outcome.
- Compassionately acknowledges and validates emotions without advising, unless requested.
- Creates a safe space for the other person to share and resolve their struggle.
- Helps to regulate the other person’s emotions and ground them into their inner strength and wisdom.
- Connects the person to their own heart and logic, which increases insight, meaning, and the courage to act.
Compassionate vs. Cognitive vs. Emotional Empathy
To illustrate, let’s examine a situation and the difference between responses built upon compassionate empathy versus responses centered on cognitive or emotional empathy.
Your best friend at work, looking distraught, comes to your desk and says, “Sam disrupted my presentation, and in front of the director! I don’t know what I’m going to do; I’m so furious. He always thinks he knows better. I just don’t see a way out—he micromanages everything!”
The Emotional Empathy Response:
You immediately feel the impact of your friend’s emotions. Your heart feels deeply for her situation—you’ve been there. You take your friend’s hand, saying, “You’ve got a right to be angry; that’s so disempowering and embarrassing!”
The Cognitive Empathy Response:
You pull up a chair for your friend and say, “Walk me through what happened. That may shine a light on how best to proceed, and I’ll help you get there.”
The Compassionate Empathy Response:
You ask your friend to join you on a walk outside. Once away from the office, you say, “I know how important that presentation was to you; you put a lot of work into it. That’s got to be so infuriating! And it sounds like you’re totally fed up with your manager.” After your friend’s emotions settle, you say, “Tell me more about what happened and how you plan to handle it.”
All three responses foster a connection with the other person and help them on their return to serenity and to finding a solution. However, the compassionate, empathetic response utilizes all three aspects of empathy while acknowledging the person’s whole experience. It provides a safe space for the other person to express themselves, feel heard, and regain their solid ground.
For more on how to talk to someone with empathy, check out "How to Talk to Someone with Empathy—and What to Avoid!"
Why Choose Compassionate Empathy?
Compassionate empathy is the middle ground that honors the natural connection between the brain and the heart. As a result, there are very few drawbacks, if any, to feeling and expressing compassionate empathy for others! This type of empathy goes beyond merely understanding others and sharing their feelings. It moves us to act; to help wherever we can. It provides the groundwork for sharing experiences AND assists the other person in growing.
Being compassionate helps us be healthier overall, according to the Greater Good Magazine from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Greater Good writes that leading researchers in positive psychology suggest compassion for others helps speed recovery from disease, improves physical and mental health, and may even lengthen our lifespan.
Check out our workbook on empathy.
How to Develop Compassionate Empathy
Like all types of empathy, compassionate empathy is a skill that can be developed and improved over time. To strengthen your relationships with others, and find real solutions to problems, try these essential keys for expressing compassionate empathy:
STEP 1: Empty and calm yourself.
Make sure you have the mental and emotional space to be present before engaging.
STEP 2: Listen attentively.
Listen astutely when others are talking to you about a problem or how they feel. Compassion springs out of being present.
STEP 3: Suspend judgment.
A person will not feel understood if you are judging their feelings, how they are expressing themselves, or what they're saying. It’s easy to think they’re overly emotional or being irrational in their conclusions. Don’t. Carve a safe space.
STEP 4: Remain open and hold caring eye contact.
Display open and friendly body language. Maintain soft eye contact to help foster a deeper connection and trust.
STEP 5: Accurately mirror the emotions of the person.
The most crucial part of compassionate empathy is sensing the feelings of another person and reflecting on their experience for them. It's in this exchange that a person can relax into their heart and recenter.
STEP 6: Validate: When you understand how the other person feels, respond with statements indicating you understand. For example, "It sounds like that experience was very upsetting for you!" [or sad, exciting, joyful, satisfying, etc.] or "I can't imagine how difficult that must be for you." Adapt your descriptive words based on their emotions and body language.
TIP: What you say isn't as important as your presence. Deep, abiding presence that calms and lets the person know that their experience is shared and understood.
STEP 7: Repeat the steps if the person's emotions escalate. You will know that the person feels understood when the emotions settle and dissipate. If they don't, you may have used feeling stoppers, such as fixing, denying, or changing the subject. Or you could have simply misunderstood what they were trying to convey. Try again.
It’s best to practice the above steps one at a time until you feel competent in each. These steps require increased awareness, self-control, and a combination of various EQ abilities. Following and practicing these steps will help you achieve better success in relationships and greater connection with others. And if you’d like a thorough and easy-to-follow practice guide to master compassionate empathy in your life, download Real Empathy, Real Solutions, and get your action plan to self-coach yourself to success.
For more customized support, contact us at Heartmanity to learn more about our coaching programs.