I have always considered myself someone with strong empathy because I can put myself in other people's shoes and understand their perspective, even when I disagree with their views. This has been an especially valuable skill for me as a consultant. However, in some of my past relationships, I have been accused of not having much empathy, which, given the above, I always thought was untrue. But today, I learned that there are actually two types of empathy, and I realise that I am strong in cognitive empathy — which I use in my consulting work, and weak in emotional empathy — which is important in personal relationships.
Empathy is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon studied extensively by psychologists and researchers. It refers to our ability to understand and appreciate the experiences, perspectives, and emotions of others and to use that understanding to connect and communicate with them more effectively.
Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to understand someone else's situation from their point of view. It offers a pragmatic view that doesn't necessarily include emotions, at least other than identifying and understanding their potential impact on a given situation. Emotional empathy, on the other hand, involves experiencing similar emotions to those experienced by the other person, which can help us connect with them on a deeper level. This view is less a pragmatic disconnected observer and more a Vulcan mind-meld potential emotional rollercoaster.
Cognitive empathy is often referred to as perspective-taking because it involves imagining oneself in someone else's shoes and seeing the world from their perspective. This skill is essential for effective communication and problem-solving, as it allows us to identify someone's needs and concerns and respond appropriately. Research has shown that cognitive empathy is linked to activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complex thought processes and decision-making (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25554428/ ).
As a strategy consultant, cognitive empathy is a critical skill to have. Understanding the perspectives and needs of different stakeholders is essential for developing effective strategies that can achieve buy-in from diverse groups. It also enables me to identify potential risks, roadblocks, or obstacles to implementation well in advance and develop solutions or implement mitigations that address these concerns. Cognitive empathy can also help consultants communicate ideas in a way that resonates with different stakeholders, switching with ease between more and less technical audiences, for example, making it more likely that they will be understood and their ideas accepted and implemented.
Emotional empathy, also known as affective empathy, is a more visceral and immediate experience that involves actually feeling the emotions of others. This can be an intense and often overwhelming experience, as it involves sharing someone else's pain, sadness, or joy. Emotional empathy is thought to be mediated by activity in the amygdala and other limbic structures involved in emotional processing.
While both types of empathy are important, people may have different strengths and weaknesses in each area. For example, some individuals, such as myself, are naturally better at cognitive empathy and may struggle with emotional empathy, finding it challenging to recognise and respond to the emotions of others.
A potential source of this struggle with emotional empathy can be past experiences. For example, people who have experienced recurring trauma or abuse may develop a coping mechanism to distance themselves from strong emotions. This distancing can make it challenging to connect with others on an emotional level, as they may struggle to identify or understand certain feelings.
Another factor that can impact the ability to feel emotional empathy is our upbringing. Children raised in emotionally neglectful or abusive environments may have difficulty developing emotional empathy because they have not been taught to recognise or express emotions. In contrast, children raised in nurturing and empathetic environments may be more attuned to the feelings of others and better able to connect with them on an emotional level.
In addition to personal experiences and upbringing, there may also be neurological differences that contribute to differences in empathy. For example, some people may have a stronger connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, which allows them to balance cognitive and emotional empathy more effectively. Others may have weaker connections between these regions, making it more challenging to switch between the two as needed.
The impact of empathy
The impact of empathy on our relationships and interactions with others is significant. In the workplace, cognitive empathy can be particularly valuable for understanding the needs of clients or colleagues and finding solutions to problems. Emotional empathy, on the other hand, is important for building strong personal relationships and creating a positive work environment. Employers who foster a culture of compassion and emotional intelligence are likelier to have happy and productive employees who feel valued and supported.
In social and romantic relationships, emotional empathy is particularly crucial for fostering intimacy and trust. It allows us to connect with others on a deeper level. When we can feel what our partner is feeling, we can better understand their needs and desires and respond in a way that meets those needs. This deep understanding and connection can foster greater intimacy, trust, and mutual support — all helpful for building strong and satisfying relationships.
Emotional empathy can also help partners navigate conflicts and disagreements, enabling them to see things from each other's emotional perspective and find common ground. When we feel understood and accepted by our partner, we are more likely to feel connected and satisfied in the relationship. Conversely, when our partner fails to recognise or respond to our emotional needs, we may feel unsupported or even rejected.
Improving your capacity for empathy
Building this skill may require work and practice for individuals struggling with it. Becoming more attuned and comfortable with identifying and experiencing various feelings can help you better understand and respond to the emotions of others.
It is also worth noting that empathy, and especially emotional empathy, is not easy for everyone, and it can be challenging to maintain a balance between cognitive and emotional empathy. For example, those strong in emotional empathy can get swept up in the intense feelings of others, making it hard to focus on problem-solving or finding a solution. Similarly, it can be challenging when someone is being irrational or difficult. In these situations, taking a step back and practising self-care is recommended. It is also important to recognise that empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed over time and that it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them in the process.
Additionally, Empathy transcends species
A heartwarming experiment conducted at the University of Washington is a powerful example of how empathy is not limited to human beings but can be observed in other species. The study aimed to explore the presence of empathy in rats, and the results have significant implications for our understanding of the emotional lives of animals.
In the experiment, researchers placed two rats in a cage together. One rat was trapped in a small, transparent enclosure within the cage while the other rat roamed freely. The trapped rat displayed signs of distress, such as squeaking and pressing against the enclosure walls. In response to its cagemate's distress, the free rat began exhibiting signs of empathic behaviour. It worked diligently to release the trapped rat by biting and pushing at the enclosure door. Once the trapped rat was freed, both exhibited positive social behaviours, such as grooming and playing together.
The researchers repeated the experiment with multiple pairs of rats and consistently observed the same empathic behaviour. They also found that the free rats were more likely to release their trapped cagemates when they had previously experienced being trapped themselves. This finding suggests that rats can not only empathise with the distress of their peers but also draw on their personal experiences to enhance their empathic response.
Furthermore, the study found that the rats' empathic behaviour was not driven solely by the prospect of social interaction. When the researchers repeated the experiment with an empty enclosure or an enclosure containing a toy rat, the free rats did not exhibit the same level of urgency or determination in opening the enclosure. This finding supports the idea that the rats were motivated by genuine empathy for their trapped cagemates.
The University of Washington's experiment highlights that empathy transcends species, shedding light on the emotional lives of animals and their capacity for compassion and connection. Understanding empathy in animals can provide valuable insights into empathy's evolution and inform how we treat and care for animals across various contexts, from pet ownership to conservation efforts.