What is empathy and why is it good for us?
Posted by Justine Clarabut on 16 March, 2021
In today’s world of 24-hour news and social media, our lives are exposed to other people, or to juxtapose, their lives are exposed to us! The influence of media is such that it can mispresent a person’s knowledge of specific events. Depending on the angle the media is taking, we are so often influenced to a certain way of thinking which can lead to being judgemental or biased without really knowing the facts. Being emphatic can help us look at all angles and understand another person’s perspective of the situation they are in without judgment.
So what is empathy?
Empathy in its simplest form is to have a sense and awareness of the emotions of other people. It is the ability to understand what others are feeling and imagine what they may be experiencing. Empathy enables people to get on with others, whether it be a loved one, colleague, friend or complete stranger. Ultimately, it is essential for developing good relationships, both in your personal life and at work. An empathetic person is perceived as warm and caring, whereas, someone who doesn’t show empathy can often be seen as cold and self-absorbed.
Psychologists have defined three different kinds of empathy: Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate:
Cognitive empathy is sometimes called ‘perspective taking’. It refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. It is as much about thought as it is about emotion. For example, understanding sadness is not the same as feeling sad. Cognitive empathy enables you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes but not necessarily sense or feel their emotion.
Emotional empathy is when you physically and emotionally feel what the other person is experiencing. Sometimes known as ’emotional contagion’, this type of empathy helps us to respond to others in distress. Emotional empathy is essential for those in caring professions as it enables them to respond appropriately.
Compassionate empathy enables us to not only understand and feel what another person is going through but also, to be able to help that person. Being able to recognise the emotions in others, and to understand their perspective on a situation enables us to use that insight to support them through challenging situations.
What are the benefits of being empathetic?
- Empathy is an important and vital skill. Being able to understand the needs of those around you and have a clear understanding of the perception you create with the way you are to others will enhance your communication skills. This will enable you to better understand the needs of your colleagues, clients, family and friends and build social connections.
- Social Connections are the relationships we have with those around us. Having empathy enables us to build those social connections. To feel connected to others is hugely important for our optimal wellbeing. It is the very basis of human relationships and helps us to feel valued, loved, and cared for.
- Being connected to others is good for our mental wellbeing. Studies show that those who feel connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Building strong connections in your life can increase your feelings of happiness and self-worth.
- Improves leadership skills. Empathy improves our capacity to communicate well with others, not just individually but as part of a team. It will help you to effectively lead and inspire others, and develop more compassionate relationships.
- Anticipate the needs of clients. Having empathy will help you to understand and read the requirements of your clients.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
Can we cultivate greater empathy?
Research shows that empathy is partly innate and partly learned. Therefore, finding the right level of empathy can take practice. Whether you are helping a colleague to overcome an issue at work or comforting a loved one, being emotionally fit, or in other words staying away from your own negative thoughts, will truly help you to be more empathetic.
Ways that you can improve your empathy
- Listen attentively (without interrupting or trying to provide a solution!) Effective listening opens us up mentally and emotionally to the other person. It can help build trust, gain respect, strengthen relationships and gives space for inspiration.
- Ask questions sensitively and with the intent to understand how the other person is feeling.
- Learn to be aware of your own biases, as these control our thoughts and opinions of others and in turn, will affect our actions.
- Cultivate your sense of curiosity to develop a greater understanding of people.
- Work and socialise with people from all walks of life and practice being non-judgmental
- Be in tune with your own emotions as this will help you to relate to other people’s emotional reality more effectively.
To read more about how to be more empathetic and some great steps on how to achieve it, take a look at this article in the New York Times here
References and further reading