Empathy, whether cognitive or emotional, helps in connecting with others. Practising empathy helps us to improve our relationships with family members, spouse, friends or co-workers. Without empathy, it is almost impossible to develop and maintain an interpersonal relationship with others. Generally, empathy is thought to be the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes with the aim of trying to gain a better understanding of their experience(s).
As stated by Stephen Covey, “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
Different forms of empathy have been identified. However, the two primary forms of empathy that have been identified and researched are cognitive empathy and emotional empathy – also known as affective empathy. They reveal the ways we are able to relate to a friend or family member in crisis.
Although they are quite different, both are equally important for helping us form and maintain connections with others.
Distinct differences between cognitive and emotional empathy
1. Cognitive empathy
- Taking another person’s perspective.
- Imagining what it’s like in another person’s shoes.
- Understanding someone’s feelings.
2. Emotional empathy
- Sharing an emotional experience.
- Feeling distressed in response to someone’s pain.
- Feeling a willingness to help someone.
Cognitive empathy has to do with taking the perspective of the other person. When we practice cognitive empathy, we imagine what it is like to actually be this person in their situation. Cognitive empathy is also referred to as perspective-taking, which led to the idea of putting ourselves in someone’s shoes.
With cognitive empathy, we try to gain a better understanding of people’s experience by placing ourselves in their situation.
Practising cognitive empathy helps us to meet people where they are in their situation and understand why they feel the way they feel. That is, looking at their situation or circumstances from their perspective.
This form of empathy, on the other hand, has to do with sharing an emotional experience with the other person. Imagine sitting close to a close friend who is sad or hopeless. Her situation gets to you, and you begin to feel sad as well.
With emotional empathy, we move from cognitive perspective-taking to a shared emotional experience.
Hodges and Davis social psychology researchers, describe emotional empathy in three ways:
- Feeling the same emotion as the other person.
- Feeling our own distress in response to their pain.
- Having a feeling of compassion towards the other person.
Showing emotional empathy to others makes it easier to be willing to help them as well.
Practising the act of balancing cognitive and emotional empathy helps to improve our relationship with others. Empathy helps to close an emotional gap between people. It creates connections and shared experiences. When we don’t know what a shared emotional experience feels like with someone, it can be difficult to know how to do that with others.
If you feel you never learned how to empathise with others, or never had an experience of anyone empathising with you, the good thing is that you can learn the skills of empathy. Things that can be done to improve your skills are listed below.
1. Learn to put aside your viewpoints
Our beliefs and experience influence the way we perceive people and situations. We should learn to put these aside in order to understand people better.
2. Be an active listener
Often times, we listen to people with the aim of developing a response. This shouldn’t be so. It prevents us from hearing what they have to say and missing out on information to understand them better.
3. Be curious about them
When you ask them questions about their experience, it gives them the feeling that you are listening and that you want to understand them. This helps people feel seen and heard. It’s a good way to practise empathy.
4. Do not be quick to fix or offer a solution
Most times, we proffer solutions or try to fix whatever we think is wrong just to make them feel better or cheer them up. However, this can make them feel unseen or unheard even though you are trying to be helpful. It is best to offer space for people to share and remember that it is not your role to fix them.