What Is Empathy? The 3 Types of Empathy and How They Differ

One woman puts arm around another for comfort, showing all 3 types of empathy

Did you know there are actually three types of empathy? Understanding the difference can help you better understand what empathy is, and to build it.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the thoughts or feelings of another person. It’s a hallmark of emotional intelligence a key ability that allows you to better understand others and strengthen your relationships.

To feel and display empathy for another person, you don’t have to share their experiences or circumstances. But you must have two things:

  • A desire to relate to someone’s thoughts or feelings
  • An active imagination

Armed with your imagination and a desire to get into the head (and heart) of another, you’re ready to attempt to show empathy.

But did you know there are actually three types of empathy?

What are the 3 Types of empathy?

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman are two of the world’s leading experts in emotional intelligence and empathy, respectively.

In an article for Greater Good Magazine, a publication of The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, Goleman and Ekman broke down the concept of empathy into the following three categories:

  • Cognitive empathy
  • Emotional empathy
  • Compassionate empathy

Let’s take a closer look at each one, how they relate to one another, and how you can build and show each type.

What is cognitive empathy?

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand a person’s feelings and what they might be thinking.

Cognitive empathy is the most basic form of empathy, but it’s extremely powerful. It helps you to understand why a person says or does what they do, the reasons behind their words and actions. This gives you a more accurate picture of that person.

To illustrate, if a colleague starts to struggle at work, cognitive empathy allows you to see “behind the scenes.” Rather than dismiss the person as lazy or incapable, you strive to understand what may cause the person’s work to suffer. Are they going through a difficult time? Has something changed in their personal life?

In addition to making you more understanding, cognitive empathy makes you a better communicator—because it helps you to relay information in a way that the other person can understand, too.

What is emotional empathy?

Emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy) goes a step further than understanding another person’s feelings, it’s the ability to actually share those feelings. Some have described emotional empathy as “your pain in my heart.”

Emotional empathy enables you to better relate to another person, regardless of whether or not you agree with them or even how you view their situation.

To continue our illustration, let’s say your colleague tells you that they’re especially stressed because of some problems with their children. You haven’t had those same problems with your kids, maybe you don’t even have kids, but you understand that situation is stressful and could affect their work.

But when you show emotional empathy, you try to relate to their feelings. You think of a time where you were especially stressed—not because of your children, but something else. Maybe it was a presentation you had to give. Or maybe you were going through a hard time with your significant other.

The key here is you try to relate to the feeling, not the situation. And when you do, you build a connection with the other person, which often leads to the third type of empathy.

What is compassionate empathy?

Compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings: it actually moves you to take action, to help in some way.

Going back to your colleague: You’ve been able to figure out what they’re thinking and feeling. You’ve even found a way to share those feelings, even though your circumstances are much different from theirs.

Now, compassionate empathy inspires you to do something. If you’re a team lead, maybe you can alleviate stress by extending a deadline, or asking a less busy teammate to help with the current work. Or, as a teammate, you could volunteer to help.

Even by just offering a listening ear, you take action that says: “I feel what you’re feeling. Let me help.”

Not only does that help get your colleague through a rough spot, it strengthens your relationship and encourages them to do the same for others.

Now that you understand the difference between the three types of empathy, make sure to check out how you can build each one.

How to build cognitive empathy

To build cognitive empathy, you have to do two things:

  • Practice active listening
  • Use your imagination

Active listening is more than just giving another person the opportunity to speak. You have to pay attention to what they are saying, and extract learnings from it.

That starts with:

  • putting your phone or computer away and giving them your undivided attention
  • resisting the urge to interrupt
  • giving the other person time to fully express themselves

But what if the other person isn’t much of a talker, or is hesitant to share their thoughts and feelings?

Active listening also involves asking questions to help draw out the other person. To help the other person open up, you might start by asking or saying something like:

  • How are things?
  • Is something on your mind?
  • I noticed your not yourself. Do you feel like talking about it?

Of course, you don’t want to force anyone to talk. If now is not the right time, you could simply say: “I’m here if you want to talk about it.”

Next, you have to use your imagination. Try to see beyond the words the person is saying, and what they’re communicating with their facial expressions and body language. Remember that you’re making educated guesses based on what you know about the person, your own emotions and behavior, and your cumulative experiences dealing with others.

After the conversation, take time to think about any feedback they provided. By doing so, not only will you get to know them better, you’ll learn more about how your own communication style is perceived by others. All of this is helping you to build both self- and social awareness, key elements of emotional intelligence.

How to build emotional empathy

To achieve emotional empathy, you’ll have to go further. Your goal is to build a deeper connection by actually sharing the feelings of the other person.

When someone shares their experience, listen carefully. Resist the urge to judge, to interrupt and share your own experience, or to recommend a solution. Instead, focus on understanding the how and the why: how the person feels, and why they feel that way.

Now that you better understand how the person feels, you must find a way to share that feeling. Ask yourself: When have I felt this way?

Remember, the key is to relate to the feeling, not the situation. Dr. Hendrie Weisinger, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence at Work, illustrated this well to me once.

“If a person says, ‘I screwed up a presentation,’ I don’t think of a time I screwed up a presentation—which I have [done] and thought, no big deal,” Weisinger told me. “Rather, I think of a time I did feel I screwed up, maybe on a test or something else important to me. It is the feeling of when you failed that you want to recall, not the event.”

Once you’ve found a way to connect with the other person’s feelings, you’re ready to show compassionate empathy.

How to show compassionate empathy

To show compassionate empathy, try to think of what you could do to help the other person.

You can ask them directly, but depending on the person they may or may not give you an answer. In many cases, it’s helpful to ask yourself:
What would help me if I felt like this?

Remember that what worked for you, or even others, may not work for this person. But don’t let that hold you back from trying to help.

As you can see, empathy is a complex quality, with different types and many facets. It’s the ability to share the feelings of another person. To walk in their shoes. To put their pain in your heart.

In the end, it may be impossible to imagine exactly how another person feels. But by developing empathy, you’ll get much closer than you could otherwise.


You might also like:

Can Empathy Be Bad? Make Your Empathy Helpful, Not Harmful

Sympathy and Empathy: What’s the Difference?

What Is Emotional Intelligence?


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