Defining Empathy

Author: Chelsea Rutherford
July 11, 2022

For years now, empathy has been a buzzword in leadership training and personal development seminars. We all know empathy is important, but many of us have a hard time defining what it actually is. We can do better when it comes to empathy, but we haven’t been able to because for so long it’s been unclear how we can actually apply it in our roles. 

What we know for certain is that empathy is one of the most powerful interpersonal skills. It can facilitate trusting relationships and create safe, collaborative environments. Being on the receiving end of empathy is a remarkable feeling. It creates the kind of connection that leads to mutual respect, honesty and loyalty. 

We need this kind of connection now more than ever, but it’s incredibly difficult to achieve. With working from home and being nearly permanently on the other end of a screen, our energy and attention is dominated. 

We know all of this to be true about empathy. But we need a clear definition - something tangible, something we can hold onto.

We first need to delineate between sympathy, empathy and compassion, because these three terms are often confused with one another. As we see it: 

Sympathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience.
Compassion is the desire to improve another person’s experience.
Empathy is the ability to relate to another person’s experience. 

Sympathy may come from a good place, but when we are on the receiving end it’s often deemed as unhelpful. A study of patients in palliative care shows how sympathy was viewed as pitying and reductive of their suffering or distress. Because sympathy is passive - it doesn’t require much from the observer other than a few words of encouragement - it often leads to a person on the receiving end feeling isolated as opposed to understood. 

Compassion lights up the part of our brain that loves helping others. We often opt for compassionate action because we want to end the suffering of another, especially those whom we care about or identify closely with. But when we jump right into compassionate action without taking the time to grasp what the other person really needs, we may end up expending effort on a redundant solution.  

Empathy requires delving into your perspective and experiences in order to relate to the feelings and standpoint of another. It’s entirely relational. It can happen involuntarily as an internal response, one that is felt on an emotional or even a physical level. This is known as affective empathy. Empathy can also be experienced as an intellectual process, where one may compare experiences or ask questions to ascertain another person’s emotional state. This is referred to as cognitive empathy

There are major differences between affective and cognitive empathy - one is involuntary while the other is conscious, one is immediate while the other requires reflection and introspection. Many of us assume that there is a right way to experience and display empathy - but each of us shows up very differently on the spectrums of affective and cognitive empathy.

And this is how learning about empathy leads to something larger - the very process of defining what empathy is helps us to relate more to those who experience empathy differently than us. 

It turns out that accurately defining empathy and understanding its inherent complexities actually allows us to become more empathetic.

To understand empathy on a deeper level and how you can refine it in your work, explore our Leading with Empathy workshop.

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