Three Dimensions of Empathy
As we all live in the world limited by our perceptions and we all have different variations of the same reality it is not always simple to comprehend why people feel or think in a certain way. But there is something like empathy which helps us build social connections and feel values we care for. Empathy is essential in both our private and professional life to understand the needs, emotions and opinions of others. Thanks to empathy we can put ourselves in someone’s situation and improve our capacity to communicate our ideas in a way that makes sense to others. Empathy is not the same as sympathy where we are moved by someone’s feelings but we stil keep an emotional distance - watch an animation by Dr. Brene Brown’s to understand this difference better.
Being empathic means thinking beyond yourself. It means being able to recognise the other party's emotions and share it. It requires time, effort and awareness to understand what, how and why people feel a particular way.
THREE TYPES OF EMPATHY
Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman identified three types of empathy:
1. Cognitive empathy
It lets us understand rationally and logically how the mind of another person functions and what their perspective or feelings are. It helps us understand what the other person might be thinking about and in result what their mood is, but there is no emotional connection between you and the person you empathise with.
📍Imagine your colleague came to work really depressed and said “My dog died last night.” Your cognitive empathy response might be: “I am sorry. I know you are sad, but your dog was old and ill. In the end we will all bite the dust.” Probably it is not the response your teammate would expect.
2. Emotional/affective empathy
It is about sharing emotional experience. The other person’s emotions affect the way we feel ourselves. It is not about understanding how someone feels as in the cognitive empathy, but also about creating an emotional bonding with the person. Emotional empathy was divided by Hodges and Myers, social psychology researchers, into three components i.e. emotional contagion (feeling the same emotion as another person), feeling distress due to the others person’s pain and feeling compassion.
📍 Imagine again the same situation as above - your teammate is sharing with you the sad news about their dog - your emotional empathy response might be: “I am sorry to hear that. I know you are missing Freddie so much. He was like a part of your family for all these years. I am here for you.”
3. Compassionate empathy
It is a kind of balance between cognitive and emotional empathy. It is not only about understanding another person’s emotion and showing concern, but also taking some steps to help someone solve their problem.
📍And once again let us imagine the situation with the dog. If you use compassionate empathy response, you may say: “ I am sorry to hear that. I know you are missing Freddie so much. He was like a part of your family for all these years. I also lost a dog a few years ago. It was really hard to go through, but what helped me was volunteering in the animals shelter. Maybe you want to go with me there next week?”
It is not always easy to find an appropriate solution to someone’s problem, but we can try to help however we can. It is ok to share your experience and relate to something that helped you in the past.
EMPATHY & WORKPLACE
You now know that there are three types of empathy, but how to use them in the workplace? At first we have to realise that empathy is crucial in any type of organisation regardless of its size, age or industry. Empathy is also not dedicated only to the companies which deal with setbacks in progress, underperformance, or team issues. Being empathic should be just something natural in your team. The problem is that we are sometimes focused so much on achieving our own goals and ambitions that we forget about people around us. But there are many simple ways of demonstrating empathy in your team that you can put in practise even right now.
Observe others around you, watch and wonder, do not categorise, do not label, just care about them. Listen carefully and pay attention when your colleagues share some facts from their personal or professional life with you. It allows you to comprehend their points of view properly and recognise the issues they are facing. Showing concern helps others to open up and make them feel much more comfortable.
Let people in your team know that their feelings and wellbeing is important to you. Even if you have never experienced what they are going through, it is sometimes enough to say that you understand that it must be hard, difficult or exhausting. And if you have experienced a similar situation, try to talk openly about your own feelings, experiences, joys or fears. You can discover that you may have something (or much) in common with the person you are working with.
Use active listening and ask questions. Slow down to consider the other’s person needs and the intentions or motivation behind them. You do not have to agree, just listen. Very often we do not have enough information and facts to know why someone is feeling angry, tired, upset, but we can always try to understand. Do not judge people’s feelings, believes or experiences. Empathy is not about judging and making opinions.
CAN I LEARN EMPATHY?
And now the most important question - can I learn empathy? Yes, empathy is a teachable skill. It does not happen naturally for a lot of people. But the more we practice it the more intuitive it becomes. If you are not an empathic person by genetic, it is possible to acquire it yourself. You can start with some basic modelling exercise like below:
- Imagine one of your college at work (or you can choose at first your friend or someone from your family).
- What was his/her mood recently?
- What is going on in their life so they feel happy/sad/angry/worried?
- How do I contribute to their situation? Am I making him/her feel better or worse?
- What can I do or say to improve they situation?
Practise this exercise even every day. If you are not sure about your answers, confront that with the person you are thinking about. No one may have grudge if you show your concern and interest about their life. The more you practice the better you would be. We all have potential to change. Our empathy can be always developed.
Apart from modelling exercises, you may also follow some best practises as following:
🧡 Practise curiosity about people around you, new cultures, places, tastes etc.
🧡 Try out new activities and see how vulnerable you can be in the beginning.
🧡 Ask for feedback people you work and live with.
🧡 Apologise if you hurt someone’s feelings.
🧡 Learn how to name and recognise emotions.
🧡 Experiment with different hypothetical situations and put yourself in someone’s shoes.
🧡 Use empathic language.
I can see how important it is for you. I knows that it might be frustrating. I am aware that it might have been confusing for you. I am really sorry it happened. I would like to help you if I can. Let us think together what we can do in this situation. I am on your side. It is not surprise it made you upset.
Empathy is an interpersonal skill that is viewed as a part of emotional intelligence and it is a skill that can bring a real value into your organisation’s life and might become some glue which keeps your relationship together. We should use an empathic approach not only while working inside the team but also with the clients. The empathic communication let us understand their business choices or some decisions that stand behind products we work on. Empathy helps to build trust and create a bond. The mindset shift that we can make thanks to empathic approach can really do wonders. So, next time before you make an opinion about someone, try to understand what led them here, what they think and feel and why they feel like that.