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What Is Empathy and Why Is It Important?

Have you ever had one of those days when you just needed someone to talk to, someone to really get how you were feeling? Have you ever felt totally misunderstood by your spouse or a friend? Well, if you have, you were more than likely needing a dose of empathy.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Empathy is crucial skill in every relationship

Feeling heard and understood is a human need. Everyone needs to feel understood. Empathy helps us get in touch with our feelings and gives us an emotional understanding of ourselves and others.

Can Empathy Be Learned?

Feeling understood is not only a basic human need but it is also how we connect, help, and support one another. If we can’t recognize someone in pain, how can we support them? If we are unable to accept and empathize with our own emotions, it is difficult to be present to people around us. And for this reason, empathy is crucial for our interconnectivity.

The good news is that like other emotional intelligence (or EQ) skills, empathy can be learned and practiced. Unlike IQ or the genes you inherited from your parents, we can apply ourselves and develop a greater understanding and know-how in relating to our own and others' feelings. And we can even extend this type of compassionate empathy virtually, which helps bridge the distance or separation we may feel.

For a hands-on workbook to learn to empathize, identify when we slip into using feeling stoppers, and how to respond empathetically, check out our online store.
Extending empathy and compassion virtually

What Does Empathy Mean? 4 Qualities that Describe Empathy

In the book, "Born for Love," authors Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD describe empathy this way: "The essence of empathy is the ability to stand in another's shoes, to feel what it's like there. Your primary feelings are more related to the other person's situation than your own."

This quote is very key. If we are filled with our own reactions or pain, it is nearly impossible to see or feel what it’s like from another’s experience because their emotions will set off a chain reaction of our own unresolved emotions. So one of the first keys of empathy is to be aware of our own emotions. It is only with this awareness that we can be present to another.

In the article, "Brené Brown on Empathy vs Sympathy," by Psychology Today, the four qualities of empathy are outlined as:

1)  to be able to see the world as others see it
2)  to be nonjudgmental
3)  to understand another's feelings
4)  to communicate your understanding of that person's feelings


These four components are present when one is being empathetic. When we can be present to another and be an accurate mirror for their feelings without taking on their emotions, these elements will be active. However, these qualities each require us to be peaceful within ourselves first. When empathy is done well, the person sees themselves in a mirror, their emotions dissipate, and they are ready to take action oftentimes.

Related reading: The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, Compassionate
A man sees his reflection in the mirror of empathy

The Difference between Empathy vs Sympathy

Many people think they’re being empathetic when they’re being sympathetic (because they feel sorry for the person) or asserting a feeling stopper (because they don’t know how to respond or relate to the feelings of the other person). Or sometimes the experience trips emotional triggers and unresolved issues in their own lives so they quickly minimize the person's experience.

These critical components are not as easy as they would seem. Our own past experiences can interfere with connecting to another person. Once an emotion is triggered, it can be difficult to show empathy or be present in a genuine way.

A great depiction of the primary differences between empathy and sympathy are cleverly illustrated in "7 Intricate Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy" by LifeHack. It's often helpful to see a concept visually.

An important goal in our relationships is to connect. Empathy creates connection while sympathy creates separation and disconnection. With empathy, there is a resonance between people, a bridge of understanding is built between them that strengthens trust and connection. However, with sympathy, there is a fixation on one person's experience rather than understanding and connection.

A married couple in love relaxing in a bean chair

Don't Take Responsibility for Other's Emotions

Another obstacle of expressing authentic empathy is the tendency to believe that we’re responsible for making other people feel better, especially those we love. You can be present to someone having a difficult time, yet not take on their energy or allow their emotions to weigh you down. Caring is connecting and supporting, not taking responsibility for their emotions. Imagine if everyone else’s emotions were our responsibility—yikes, we’d be so overwhelmed! No wonder our first knee-jerk reaction sometimes is to try to make others feel better.

Empathy doesn't ask us to take responsibility for someone else’s feelings.

Empathy is the ability to truly be present. It's the ability to hold a safe space for others to feel their own emotions completely and to be able to understand their experience.

Empathy is one of the most vital of emotional fitness skills, especially during difficult times for a person or in the face of a crisis. Developing empathy will increase your emotional intelligence overall.

What Is the Empathy Scale?

The Empathy Scale contains four separate dimensions: social self-confidence, even-temperedness, sensitivity, and nonconformity. Hogan defined empathy as ‘‘the intellectual or imaginative apprehension of another’s condition or state of mind" (Hogan, 1969).

However, you don't need a scale to begin today to be more empathetic. You can begin by observing yourself and seeking to understand others around you. How will you know when you're doing a good job of empathizing? It's simple. You'll notice the other person's emotion softening or charged emotions dissipating. And you'll sense a feeling of connection between you.

If you'd like to dive deeper into the skill of empathy check out our workbook: Real Empathy, Real Solutions: 4 Keys to Unlocking the Power of Empathy.  You'll learn about feelings stoppers and how they interfere with giving compassion and empathy; you'll get practice with interactive worksheets and infographics to break down the tool easily.

Develop emotional well-being and get your emotions in shape!

Related reading:  "Empathy vs Sympathy: What's the Difference?"  (Includes a more in-depth understanding of empathy and an accompanying infographic for easy reference.)

To learn more about how to develop emotional literacy, empathy for yourself and others as well as how to set effective boundaries in your life, try our online course today. You'll be glad you did!

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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 & Fitness, Most Popular

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