Understanding Empathy

‘You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird


Emotion researchers define empathy as an awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. It is a key element of Emotional Intelligence, the link between self and others, because it is how we as individuals understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves.

Empathy is the art of seeing the world as someone else sees it. When you have empathy, it means you can understand what a person is feeling in a given moment, and understand why other people’s actions made sense to them.


Elements of Empathy

Daniel Goleman identified five key elements of empathy.

  1. Understanding Others
  2. Developing Others
  3. Having a Service Orientation
  4. Leveraging Diversity
  5. Political Awareness


We will concentrate on the first two for the purposes of self-care:


  1. Understanding Others

This is perhaps what most people understand by ‘empathy’: in Goleman’s words, “sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns”. Those who do this:

  • Tune into emotional cues. They listen well, and also pay attention to non-verbal communication, picking up subtle cues almost subconsciously.
  • Show sensitivity, and understand others’ perspectives.
  • Are able to help other people based on their understanding of those people’s needs and feelings.

All these are skills which can be developed, but only if you wish to do so. Some people may switch off their emotional antennae to avoid being swamped by the feelings of others.


  1. Developing Others

Developing others means acting on their needs and concerns, and helping them to develop to their full potential. People with skills in this area usually:

  • Reward and praise people for their strengths and accomplishments, and provide constructive feedback designed to focus on how to improve.
  • Provide mentoring and coaching to help others to develop to their full potential.


Three Types of Empathy


Psychologists have identified three types of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy.

Cognitive empathy is understanding someone’s thoughts and emotions, in a very rational, rather than emotional sense.

Emotional empathy is also known as emotional contagion, and is ‘catching’ someone else’s feelings, so that you literally feel them too.

Compassionate empathy is understanding someone’s feelings, and taking appropriate action to help.