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What is Empathy – All You Need to Know

What is Empathy – All You Need to Know

Updated on May 27, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

What is Empathy - All You Need to Know

We live in a world wherein we keep nagging, furthermore igniting angst, and fear. Amidst that, showering some kind words is a boon. You can achieve this by being empathetic. The term empathy acts as the perfect ointment to overcome anger and fear.

With empathy, you can lead a happy life for yourself and others. So, with this article, we are going to explore what is empathy? And how you can develop empathy?

Empathy Infographic

What Is Empathy - All You Need to Know
What Is Empathy – All You Need to Know

Empathy Definition

Empathy is a person’s ability to understand, recognize, and share the feelings of another person.

Empathy Meaning – What Does Empathy Mean?

When you see your loved ones in a sad mood, do you feel for them? Do you have the ability to imagine what the person is going through? If yes, then you are empathetic. When you start becoming aware of the feelings and emotions of other people, then it is empathy.

In the English language, the word empathy was derived from the Ancient Greek word ‘empátheia,’ which means passion.

In fact, there is a correlation between empathy and emotional intelligence. With this, you become capable of understanding another person and his/her feelings. Daniel Goleman, an American author who has written books on emotional intelligence beautifully states that –

“A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.”

— Daniel Goleman

On a scientific note, the reason for empathy is often mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are the keystone of human empathy. They get triggered while performing an action and while observing someone else performing the same action.

They urge us to understand the intentions of others, thus affecting the empathetic experience. Amidst this, many get confused between sympathy and empathy. But did you know that there is a difference between the two? If not, then let’s explore these terms.

Empathy vs Sympathy (difference between empathy and sympathy)

Both these terms have the ability to understand the feelings of another person. Sympathy comes from the Greek words ‘syn’ – meaning together and ‘pathos’ referring to feelings.

Sympathy is all about realizing that the person is suffering. While empathy is imagining yourself in the place of other people. 

Empathy encourages us to experience what another person is feeling. While sympathy is more towards conveying feelings of sorrow. But both these terms have one thing in common – the Greek term páthos. Páthos means “suffering or feeling.”

The only difference is that empathy ‘caring’ expands in a way to feel the emotions of another person. And most importantly, empathy is more of a personal experience. When one feels sympathy, it is more of acknowledging the experience. 

For example, losing a loved one is one of the worst experiences. A sympathetic person will feel sorry about the loss. Their way of expressing sympathy would be sending a sympathy card or flowers to the funeral.

But an empathetic person will feel beyond. An empathetic person will relate to their situation. He/she will share their own experiences about the situation and comfort the sufferer. 

The third angle to this triangle is compassion. Let’s see what compassion is all about.

Compassion vs Empathy

Compassion goes up a notch as compared to empathy and sympathy. A compassionate person understands what the other person is feeling. And undertakes action that eases out the person’s suffering.

Moreover, an ability to feel constant empathy may lead to burnout or empathic stress. But the one who is practicing compassion isn’t subjected to such experiences. 

Besides, research highlights that compassion and empathy trigger different regions of the brain. Instead, an act of compassion can lead to the suppression of emphatic stress. To know more about this war, you must read our article on compassion vs empathy!  

Well, let’s sum this up in a tabular format.

Empathy vs Sympathy vs Compassion

To experience empathy is like feeling the sufferings of another person.Feeling sympathy is to admit that someone is feeling low or suffering hardship in life.To feel compassion is taking action to relieve a person from suffering. 
Empathy may lead to empathic stress and negative feelings.Sympathy may lead to altruistic behavior. Compassion is all about positive feelings like love. 
Empaths are sensitive and get too much involved in other people. Sympathetic people boast shared feelings, opinions, or even interests.Compassionate people are good listeners, mindful, and are emotionally intelligent. 
“I understand and feel what you are going through.” “I am so sorry, that you are going through such a tough time.”“I know you are caught in a bad situation. And I want to help you in all possible ways.”
Empathy vs Sympathy vs Compassion

Well, now you know the basic concept – what is empathy? Let’s dig a little deeper and explore various types of empathy.

Types of Empathy

Psychologists have penned down three types of empathy. These types showcase different features of our personalities.

1. Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy helps in putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to know their perspective. But cognitive empathy is all about thoughts then engaging in emotions.

Cognitive Empathy Example: when a doctor examines a patient. He/she tries to understand the illness and the line of treatment. But he/she doesn’t delve into emotions. Cognitive empathy is all about solving the problem with brainpower than emotion.

And so, with cognitive empathy, also known as empathic accuracy, one can become a great communicator. It helps in conveying information in the best possible way to the other person. It also involves giving accurate knowledge about the condition of an individual’s mind.

2. Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy is also known as affective empathy. In this, when you feel empathy, you start feeling another person’s emotions. The feeling is so strong that you perceive getting caught in those emotions.

Emotional Empathy Example: when you see your partner crying, then you are unable to control your emotions and start crying too. So, this kind of empathy helps in building a strong emotional connection with others. Thus, making it a great way of understanding and sharing feelings.

3. Compassionate Empathy

Known as empathic concern, this empathy goes beyond sharing and understanding emotions. This empathy urges you to take action and help in the best possible way. Amongst all empathy, compassionate empathy is the apt option.

Instead of hearing the pain, experiencing it, relating to it, an individual prefers actual action. They are looking for solutions and expect actions to resolve.

Compassionate Empathy Example: So, when your loved one comes to you in tears, your instant reaction is to know the reason behind his/her anguish. Not just this, but you comfort them and share your personal emotional experience.

Thus, helping them to heal but not getting beguiled or taking too much burden of their feelings. Rather, balancing mindfulness with compassion and caring.

Now that you know what is empathy? And also explored the types of empathy. So, it’s now time to analyze ways to show empathy.

Opposite of Empathy

Apathy and empathy are two sides of a coin. An apathetic person has no concern whatsoever, no interest, or an emotional attachment. They are inactive when it comes to feeling someone’s pain. If you think that apathetic people feel the anger of sadness?

Then, you are wrong! They don’t feel any emotions. Things that brought a smile to their faces, don’t excite them anymore. Nor are they motivated to achieve their goals. 

But empathy can be a perfect antidote to this situation. Let’s see how.  

Why is Empathy Important?

There are several advantages while experiencing empathy. And so, we are listing some of them here.

1. Empathy improves Communication

While being empathetic, we picture how the other person is feeling. We get into the shoes of the distressed person. And while doing so, we can communicate our perspective towards the situation. This particular activity helps in strengthening our communication skills.

With empathy, you can control misunderstandings. Empathy helps in understanding the person in a better way.

With empathy, along with verbal, you tend to master non-verbal communication too. You get the capability of understanding their body language. With this, you know their thinking and ways to respond. 

2. Empathy introduces a positive attitude

When there is compassion, there is no room for negativity. Besides, a study states that compassion increases happiness as well as self-esteem.

So, with compassionate empathy, you overshadow negativity by shaping good things around. Instead of thinking, you start taking the desired action to set things right.

With empathy, a positive mental attitude is infused, and helping behavior is promoted. Gratitude is a great booster to appreciate the people around you. With this, you can instill a healthy relationship in your personal and professional life. 

3. Stress Management

When you start empathizing with others you get a medium to regulate your emotions. Even when you are under stress, you can manage it. So, emotional regulation helps in de-stressing yourself.

Along with mental stress, physical stress may also grapple you. But when you practice empathy, you get a medium to control emotions that cause stress.

With this, you can manage stress with finesse and take full control over it. Besides, stress management helps in maintaining a healthy body.  

4. Empathy boosts Social Behavior

Empathy helps in building social connections. You start understanding what people are thinking and feeling. This helps in connecting with them on an emotional level.

Also, this attitude is a great help to distressed people. They get an approach to respond to aptly in social situations.

And with this, you can hold the community together. You can make it strong. So, when a community encounters a threat, empathetic people can address it. This helps to progress in the best possible way.

5. Improves Working Environment

Empathy in the workplace is a great way to boost communication skills and manage stress. The absence of empathy leads to a war-like situation in the workplace.

No employee wants to understand the emotions of their colleagues. But when you infuse compassion, there are chances of drawing a positive conclusion.

This establishes teamwork wherein each member showers trust and value towards everyone.

Moreover, people who are shy or feel awkward, get a podium to share their feelings. Employees who have lost focus and feel depressed can get back on track. Because they realize that there is someone who understands them.

With this, it becomes easier to know the strengths of the team and find a solution faster.

6. Empathy supports Moral Behavior

We all follow a code of conduct while treating other people. Sometimes, we tend to get overwhelmed and may lose our patience. But with empathy, we embrace suitable behavior and act in a sophisticated manner.

With empathy, we get the strength to act better and gain protection from harmful entities. If anyone abuses, we get a fair idea of handling the situation. This leads to the creation of a healthy community that benefits us as well as the people around us.

Now you know why it is beneficial to be empathetic. So, it’s time to analyze ways to show empathy.

Ways to Improve Empathy

1. Be a good listener

Listening skills are important while dealing with professional and personal life. When you listen to a person, it builds a connection. A comfort level starts arousing and the person in distress might pour his/her heart out.

Empathetic listening plays a vital role while connecting with a distressed individual. While doing so, show willingness towards the conversation. Let the individual dominate the discussion. Pay attention to every minute detail that is discussed.

Give preference to open-ended questions so that the response is elaborative. Besides, whatever emotions your loved ones express, show compassion. With this, there will be a comfort level in the conversation. 

2. Don’t expedite the conversation

Patience is the key while showing empathy. And so, do not ask the person to speed up the conversation. This might be a disappointing turn and the person might avoid sharing his/her feelings with you.

Several times, during a long conversation we tend to jump to the conclusion. Thus, making it miserable for the person who is sharing his/her feelings. So, if you wish to practice empathy, then practice patience. Try and understand his/her feelings. Match with their emotional state.

Ask questions that will comfort them. Don’t rush to end the conversation at a specific point. For example: If a person had a breakup, then don’t bombard with questions like – are you okay? What happened? Just recognize his/her pain and comfort them. 

Also, do not interrupt conversation while a person is interacting. This is a great way to show empathy in the best possible ways.

3. Show concern

Despite giving a solution, the situation doesn’t end. A depressed person needs a gesture to accept that you care. So, give them a chance by communicating verbally or nonverbally that you are always there!

When a distressed person comes to you with a heavy heart; show care. Because at that moment the concerned person needs emotional support. And if you ignore then it is the biggest hurdle in your relationship too.

If you are away, then spare some time to talk over the phone. If you are nearby, then rush to meet your loved one. Remember to hug your loved one to show that – you care! 

4. Acknowledge emotions

There are times when we do not like to invite negativity into our lives. And so, we avoid some situations. Instead, show empathy towards people by considering their emotions. They are going through a tough time, so be an anchor to pull them out from such situations.

Whenever a depressed person communicates, then it is important to acknowledge their emotions. By acknowledging emotions, it infers that you recognize the depth of the situation. Don’t brush off their emotions. Don’t avoid the topic.

Also, beware of making irrelevant gestures by silencing them. Instead, ask welcoming questions and try to get an in-depth insight into the situation. 

5. Replicate

Mirroring doesn’t mean you imitate whatever the other person is doing. Instead, reciprocate their thoughts. Share incidents that can help them relate to their present situation.

When your loved one shares a personal problem by pouring their heart out. It is necessary to acknowledge them. And to furthermore calm them down, it is important to reciprocate by sharing a personal experience of your life.

With this, they will realize that you have also gone through the same circumstances. If your loved one chooses to leave the conversation or looks away, then give them their space. Remember, to not imitate every action and facial expression.

Instead, adapt yourself to match their attitude, tone, body language, and emotional response.

6. Don’t be judgmental

It is easy to malign anyone’s image by passing judgment. Instead, analyze the entire situation and gather information to conclude. One wrong judgment can shatter the dreams of a person. 

Before listening to the entire situation, avoid passing any judgment. When a person with an immense capacity for empathy, becomes judgmental. Then the conversation ends right there. Always remember to give your depressed loved one room for doubt.

Without any prior information, don’t give your decision. Your loved one is trying to come out of the situation. So, don’t pull him/her down by passing judgment. Rather give them space to share and think.

7. Extend Help

Sometimes, an individual might become helpless. And this helplessness wouldn’t go away with a solution or suggestion. In such a situation, they need a person who will listen to their woes and comfort them to the fullest.

Last but not least, extend help especially emotional help. Assure your loved ones that you always have their back despite the intensity of the problem. Encourage them to cope with life. By doing so, you are giving them the confidence to fight back.

You are giving them trust that you will never leave them. Sometimes, people do not need support and solutions. They need an ear, a hug, and words of love.

Empathy Test

If you want to know ‘how empathetic you are’ then go for an Empathy Test. You will first get your score and then tips to strengthen your empathy skills.

You can go for an Empathy test here.

Empathy Quotes

1. “The struggle of my life created empathy – I could relate to pain, being abandoned, having people not love me.”

— Oprah Winfrey
“The struggle of my life created empathy – I could relate to pain, being abandoned, having people not love me.” — Oprah Winfrey

2. “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.”

– Dolly Parton
“If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.” – Dolly Parton

3. “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.”

– Alfred Adler
“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler

4. “The opposite of anger is not calmness.  It’s empathy.”

– Mehmet Oz
“The opposite of anger is not calmness.  It’s empathy.” – Mehmet Oz

5. “The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.”

— Meryl Streep
“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” — Meryl Streep

Closing Thoughts

Experiencing empathy might not be easy or not possible all the time. But with imagination and communication, you can urge people to share.

This particular exercise will also help in generating empathetic feelings. Moreover, our above-mentioned pointers will help you to view a person from a perspective.

And show you ways to deal with them. Don’t forget, you might also come across a situation like this. So, keep up the understanding level and extend emotional support for long-term results.

Besides, if you experience empathy and wish to check how empathic you are. Then you must try the Empathy Quiz by Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley. 

See how Empathy can change the World –

Empathy can change the World

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