With all this talk about asserting boundaries and self-differentiating, you might have wondered—where does empathy feature?
Here’s the thing: if you cultivate some of the mindsets already outlined and take responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings, and perspectives, you’ll automatically have more empathy for others. Sometimes the assumption is that assertiveness = being mean, and that empathy = being nice (but a bit of a pushover). However, the truth is that good interpersonal skills stem from knowing and respecting ourselves. The relationship we have with ourselves is reflected in the relationships we have with others, and vice versa.
Empathy is nothing more complicated than recognizing and acknowledging the lived reality of another person, including their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. It’s the ability to see and accept their experience for what it is, even if it’s different from our own. Sympathy is said to be knowing that someone is feeling something, but it doesn’t contain any deep understanding of what they’re actually experiencing.
There are types of empathy, too. Cognitive empathy is having insight into another person’s experience, but this is a neutral, intellectual understanding and not an emotional one. A therapist, for example, might recognize the symptoms of post-natal depression in a client and have deep theoretical comprehension of what’s going on without having personal experience with the issue.
Emotional empathy is understanding a person’s experience on a deeper, felt level. Their feeling affects you and causes you to feel, too. While this kind of empathy can create strong bonds and compassion, it can also be overwhelming and lead to people losing their self-differentiation. Also, having strong emotional empathy doesn’t necessarily make you more able to help or solve a problem—in fact, deep feeling may incapacitate you as much as it does the other person!
Finally, so-called compassionate empathy is about the ability to take concrete steps to reduce suffering you see in others. In a conversation, this could look like actively trying to reassure someone who is desperate for comfort, or suggesting a practical solution for someone who is too overwhelmed to seek out that solution themselves.
In a way, the above three types of empathy build on one another—cognitive empathy often leads the way to emotional empathy, which then can inspire us to do something helpful. In any situation, you can activate your own empathy by remembering this hierarchy, and starting with cognitive empathy first.
Step 1: To cultivate cognitive empathy, play with switching viewpoints and perspectives and try to understand where the person is coming from, what they want, and why. Really listen with full, non-judgmental attention and set aside your own assumptions or biases. You might need to listen to their verbal and nonverbal communication. Try to put words to their emotions and ask questions rather than assuming you know what they feel.
Simply seek to understand. Remind yourself that people always make sense on their own terms, and that they’re trying the best they can to solve their needs—what are those needs? Don’t interpret and theorize and come with evaluations. Just listen. You don’t have to agree or see how their experience compares with yours. Just see what it feels like for them, in their world. For example, in a disagreement with a family member from a different generation, you might take the time to simply hear them out without going into defense mode or hurrying to explain your side of the story.
You can see intellectually that their interpretation of events is different from yours. You see the way they understand a shared event and the terms they use. You see why they feel as they do. You ask questions. Maybe you imagine you’re David Attenborough in a documentary trying to understand their behavior like an anthropologist!
Step 2: Now you can try to find emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy paves the way for this, but you can encourage it by actively imagining yourself in their position. Try to find points of common ground. This is where assuming the best and reminding yourself of their higher nature will help. Even if you’re having trouble feeling genuine empathy, you can still soften any difficult feelings by reminding yourself that, well, they’re only human. You don’t have to like them or agree with them to acknowledge that they still can suffer, and that’s reason enough not to want to be unkind to them!
Perhaps you’re still irritated with your family member, but you feel more forgiving about the argument because you realize that they’ve had a tough life—tougher than yours in many ways—and that they’re doing the best they can.
Step 3: The final step is compassionate empathy. Better than wallowing in someone else’s emotions is to thoughtfully acknowledge them while taking steps to improve the situation for everyone. This is where you make a suggestion to your family member so you can avoid the same kind of misunderstanding in the future. You might commit to making a kind and conciliatory gesture in a way you know they’ll appreciate simply to mend the relationship and show goodwill. Maybe you calmly suggest that you both take a little time away from one another to cool off.
“Empathy in action” is where empathy really starts to make an impact on our relationships. Taking steps to support the wellbeing of other people will help them, strengthen your relationship, and make you feel good, too! If people feel that they are being heard and supported, they’re far more likely to hear you and acknowledge your needs. It’s a win-win.
If a close friend reveals that they have difficulty with agoraphobia, empathize with the fact, try to imagine what it must be like for them, and next time offer to meet them at their home instead of somewhere noisy and busy. If you get into an argument with an employee who isn’t pulling their weight, first try to understand why they’re behaving as they are. If you discover they’re missing deadlines because of childcare issues, see what can be done to make their work schedule more flexible, or organize more work-from-home hours. If a partner is feeling insecure but you don’t quite understand since you yourself are quite self-assured, you could simply ask them what they need from you to feel more confident in themselves. The mere fact of you showing curiosity and respect for their perspective may be all the action that’s needed!