The Spectrums of Empathy

Author: Chelsea Rutherford
October 12, 2022

As modern-day professionals we have a tendency to believe that those who visibly display empathy make the best leaders. Simultaneously, we assume that those who don’t outwardly display empathy aren’t capable of it whatsoever. We’ve been exploring the intersection of empathy and leadership, and we’re learning that these assumptions keep us blind to both the consequences and the true potential of empathy. 

One controversial truth is that empathy can impair our ethical judgment. It can also be incredibly taxing and leave us exhausted. While these may appear to be two separate issues, they are in fact interconnected - much like mirrors of one another. You see, empathy actually falls on a spectrum. This new way of looking at empathy can help us understand where to set boundaries on empathy as well as how to embrace it in ourselves. And as we all know, self-awareness and self-acceptance make us better in all areas of life.  

By understanding the range of the empathetic spectrums - affective and cognitive - we can use this as a tool to reflect on ourselves and ultimately lead from a place of mutual empathy.

Affective empathy is experienced on an internal, somewhat intuitive, level. A person with high affective empathy tends to take on the feelings of another in order to understand them better. Those who are on the affective spectrum may simulate or mirror what another person is feeling in order to understand it, which can trigger emotional and sometimes even physical responses. 

Those on the high end of the affective empathetic spectrum should lead from their innate sense of emotional intelligence while being mindful of how their emotions - especially for those they care about - can cloud their judgment. 

Now, just because you can’t feel what another person is feeling doesn’t mean that you can’t relate and empathize with them. You’re likely capable of relating to them from a different perspective - on a cognitive level.

Cognitive empathy is approached through an intellectual lens. Those who are higher on the cognitive empathetic spectrum spend time comparing experiences or asking questions to create an understanding of another person’s emotional state or personal experience. There are many of us who don’t see ourselves as empathetic, but we’re likely just missing the fact that we approach empathy from a rational rather than an intuitive level. With mindful effort, we can reach a high state of empathy. 

Those who are high on the cognitive empathic spectrum should approach empathy from a place of curiosity. Rather than simply writing off something that you can’t relate to or understand, take the time to ask questions and gather more information before jumping to conclusions.

By recognizing that we’re different in how we process and receive empathy, we can better use the skills we have while learning to adapt to meet others where they stand. Moreover, seeing that there is more than one way to be empathetic, we can improve on creating environments that support diversity on the empathetic spectrums. 

To further explore how to improve your skills in empathy, take a look at our Leading with Empathy workshop.

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