The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, Compassionate

Do you know what the three kinds of empathy are and how to express them? Empathy is must-learn skill that brings more ease to your life and relationships!

When a student tells you they’re overwhelmed or your partner comes home with bad news from work—do you respond with empathy? Or do you react?

So, how would you respond if your partner came home overwhelmed with fear, sadness and anger and told you she’d just lost her job? The ideal would be to respond thoughtfully and empathetically.

The thing is, not all empathy looks and feels the same. Just like not all sadness is the same; or happiness; or fear.

Three kinds of empathy are defined: emotional, cognitive, compassionate

This is a topic we’re impassioned about at Heartmanity, especially because empathy is so integral to emotional intelligence (EQ) and connecting with the people you love and work with.

Think about the happiness of getting off work on Friday versus the joy of a wedding or the twisted pleasure of Schadenfreude, German for the enjoyment of another’s misfortune.

Empathy has different facets, too. In fact, empathy also comes from a German word, Einfühlung, meaning “feeling in.” And just as there are many ways to feel; there are multiple ways to experience empathy.

The three types of empathy that psychologists have defined are: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that empathy is a relatively new idea and still being defined by social and cognitive psychologists. As The Atlantic’s article “A Short History of Empathy” points out: “The term’s only been around for about a century—but over the course of its existence, its meaning has continually changed.” If Empathy is a murky concept to you, read our piece "What is Empathy and Why is it important?"

Empathy IS important. And the type of empathy that you express or experience matters as well.

Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate empathy all manifest in different ways. Reflecting on your own experiences at home, at the office, or with friends and family, it probably won’t take long for you to notice the different types in your own life. There are plentiful examples on TV, in politics and in pop culture to draw from too.


Cognitive Empathy

By definition: Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking” - Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence.

What it’s concerned with: Thought, understanding, intellect.

Benefits: Helps in negotiations, motivating other people, understanding diverse viewpoints.

Pitfalls: Can be disconnected from or ignore deep emotions; doesn’t put you in another’s shoes in a felt sense.

Business team interacting with cognitive empathyCognitive Empathy is about thought as much as emotion.
It is defined by knowing, understanding, or comprehending on an intellectual level. As most of us know, to understand sadness is not the same thing as feeling sad.

I suspect that if I came home upset about losing a job, my own partner would respond this way. In the same way that a doctor can look at a sick patient and try to understand the parts of the illness rather than dive into the patient’s emotions—cognitive empathy responds to a problem with brainpower. My fiance, an engineer and pilot, turns his brain into high gear in situations like this. You could say it’s the way some people are wired, to understand emotions in terms of why they make sense for humans in certain situations.

This type of empathy can be a huge asset in circumstances where you need to “get inside another person’s head” or interact with tact and understanding. We talk about this is our blog “Emotional Intelligence and Empathy in Leadership.” On the other hand, cognitive empathy is in some ways like mixing apples and oranges. To truly understand another person’s feelings, don’t you in some sense have to be able to feel them yourself? Those who react with Cognitive Empathy risk seeming cold or detached.

Related topic: "What Is Emotional Intelligence?"

Enrich your life and relationships with our how-to workbook, "Real Empathy, Real Solutions: 4 Keys for Unlocking the Power of Empathy!

LEARN MORE

Emotional Empathy

By definition: when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” - Daniel Goldman

What it’s concerned with: feelings, physical sensation, mirror neurons in the brain.

Benefits: Helps in close interpersonal relationships and careers like coaching, marketing, management and HR.

Pitfalls: Can be overwhelming, or inappropriate in certain circumstances.

Nurse showing empathy to a young girlEmotional Empathy, just like is sounds, involves directly feeling the emotions that another person is feeling. You’ve probably heard of the term “empath,” meaning a person with the ability to fully take on the emotional and mental state of another. The quote that comes to mind is: “I have a lot of feelings.”

This type of response might seem disconnected from the brain and thinking, but as Goldman points out, emotional empathy is actually deeply rooted in a human’s mirror neurons. All animals have neurons that fire in a certain way when they see another animal acting, making them relate to that action in their own body and brain. Emotional empathy does exactly that with the feelings someone experiences in reaction to a situation.

When your partner—or anyone you deeply love—comes to you in tears, it’s a natural response to feel that pull on your heartstrings. Like crying at a wedding or cringing when someone stubs their toe, it’s a deep-seated, gut reaction that often feels like a visceral human response. Connecting with another human in this way is intimate and can form a strong bond.

Like Cognitive Empathy, Emotional Empathy has its flip-side. “One downside of emotional empathy occurs when people lack the ability to manage their own distressing emotions,” writes Goldman. “[This] can be seen in the psychological exhaustion that leads to burnout.” Feeling too much can make even small interactions overwhelming.

For real-life examples of each kind of empathy, see "How to Talk to Someone with Empathy—and What to Avoid!"

Learn how to empathize today!


Compassionate Empathy

By definition: “With this kind of empathy we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.” - Daniel Goldman

What it’s concerned with: Intellect, emotion, and action.

Benefits: Considers the whole person.

Pitfalls: Few—this is the type of empathy that we’re usually striving for!

Empathy expressed with comfort for a tough lossThe majority of the time, Compassionate Empathy is the ideal. Cognitive Empathy may be fitting for political or monetary negotiations or surgeon’s offices; Emotional Empathy may be the first response in children and for our loved ones; Compassionate Empathy strikes a powerful balance of the two.

Feelings of the heart and thoughts of the brain are not opposites. In fact, they’re intricately connected. Compassionate Empathy honors that natural connection by considering both the felt senses and intellectual situation of another person.

When your loved one comes to you in tears, you want to understand why she is upset and you also want to provide comfort by sharing in her emotional experience and hopefully helping her heal. It’s a lot to handle!

Most of us will skew to one side or the other: more thinking or more feeling; more fixing or more wallowing.

A son giving encouragement to his fatherCompassionate Empathy is taking the middle ground and using your emotional intelligence to correctly respond to the situation. Does your partner just need to be held? Does the situation call for quick action? Without either becoming overwhelmed by sadness or trying to fix things with logistics, compassion brings a mindful touch to tough situations.


When I think of empathy I often think of a teeter-totter. Go too far into another person’s psyche and do you risk losing yourself? Avoid diving into their world and are you missing out on an integral part of the human experience? Is too much feeling inappropriate? Too little, hurtful?

The truth is, not all situations are the same just like not all types of empathy are the same.

Can you think of one example of each type of empathy in your own life? Probably more than one. Hopefully, you’ve encountered compassionate empathy at some point!

Any type of empathy takes emotional fitness and practice—just like any balancing act. When you find that sweet spot where you can empathize effectively, whether navigating a workplace hurdle or comforting a loved one, it is absolutely worth the work.

If you'd like to learn more about empathy, it's one of Heartmanity's specialties!
Try out our popular workbook, Real Empathy, Real Solutions: 4 Keys to Unlocking the Power of Empathy.

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Enid R. SpitzEnid R. Spitz
Enid Spitz is a writer and yoga instructor based in Charleston, SC. She previously lived in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, where she was a newspaper editor and researched yoga for Traumatic Brain Injury. Heartmanity combines Enid's passions for social wellbeing, neuroscience and yoga. When not writing or on the yoga mat, she is an avid traveller, enjoys a good whiskey, and loves being outdoors. Twitter: @enidrosalyn, Instagram: @littleyogibird.

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