What is Empathy?
Social researchers normally define empathy as the ability to sense other’s emotions and the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. According to vulnerability researcher Brene Brown, the empathetic person will recognize the struggle of someone else without minimizing it, and be able to communicate a powerful sense of shared connection to someone who is struggling.
Empathy is an evolutionary trait that has helped us to develop strong emotional connections with others and strengthen social cohesion and trust. Experiencing empathy is connected to the activation of mirror neurons. These neurons fire in our brain in response to seeing someone else doing or feeling something. Similarly, in the same way that they would if we were doing or feeling it ourselves. While people appear to have an innate ability (or lack of ability) to experience empathy, our ability to empathise can be enhanced (or restricted) by using cognitive or behavioural strategies.
Difference between Empathy and Sympathy
Sympathy is understanding what another person is feeling. Whereas empathy is the experience of viscerally feeling what another person feels. As this video from Brene Brown depicts, sympathy is like standing at the top of a hole talking to a person experiencing difficulty down below. Empathy is climbing down the ladder to experience and connect with them in their pain and distress. It’s important to remember that we can also share empathetic and sympathetic connections with others through positive emotions like happiness and joy.
Three Types of Empathy
Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman identified three components of empathy: Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate.
- Cognitive – Understanding how another person feels, and what they might be thinking, sometimes called perspective-taking.
- Emotional – Feeling along with the other person, as though the emotions were contagious, involves the activation of mirror neurons.
- Compassionate – Urge to help or support another person which emerges from understanding and feeling with them.
Benefits of Being Empathetic
Empathy helps us regulate our emotions and increases our social connections with others. This helps us manage stress and improves our physical and psychological well-being. It’s a key factor in emotional intelligence and humour, and can help to reduce narcissism. It promotes us to engage in helpful and supportive actions towards others, builds teamwork, and improves psychological safety. This can lead to greater productivity and creativity.
Techniques to Increase Empathy
- Cultivate curiosity about others. Try and walk a little more in their shoes, especially those who might have very different perspectives than you.
- See people as individuals rather than as groups. Try and find common ground and shared experiences.
- Try out new experiences. Getting stuck in a rut can narrow your perspective.
- Practice radical listening. Listen to understand, not just to respond. Try to be fully present with the feelings and needs of the other person in the moment.
- Be prepared to be vulnerable. Removing our protective masks and revealing our true feelings increases our understanding and connection.
- Think big. Try to see the bigger picture and develop a sense of kindness and compassion towards all members of society, even if you don’t agree with them.
How to Deal with Empathy Burnout
For those who are high in empathy, feeling the pain of others can cause vicarious pain, and empathy burnout. While you may feel the need to withdraw from your connection with others, leaning into kindness and compassion can also help. Researcher Olga Klimecki at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany discovered that training in compassion can shift the brain activity associated with empathy for others. It can be shifted from a network associated with pain perception and unpleasantness to one associated with love and affiliation. Furthermore, don’t forget to enjoy the empathetic connection with others with positive emotions like joy, pleasure, pride happiness, and to share a joke and a laugh.