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All about empathy

Barack Obama once said: "Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world."

There's been a lot of discussion about empathy in the context of the workplace recently, not least because of the work of Brene Brown and others. So I thought it was worth exploring here.

There are three types of empathy.

Cognitive empathy

This is perspective taking; the ability to see and understand another person's point of view. If you can empathise with someone else's thinking, you can have a much more productive and useful conversation with them, even if you don't agree.

It's possible to have this type of empathy with no emotional connection at all, however, so it could be seen as manipulative.

Emotional empathy

This is the type of empathy that people generally mean when they talk about empathy. It means being able to understand and connect with another person's feelings. To have emotional empathy you need to build a genuine rapport with someone, and make sure that they feel they are not alone.

It's incredibly powerful, but it can be draining, too, so boundaries are important.

Compassionate empathy

Compassionate empathy is active. This is where you bring together both cognitive and emotional empathy to offer some sort of help and assistance. Ideally this will not mean either jumping to problem solving (too cognitive) or taking on their feelings (too emotional) but a balance between the two which is genuinely useful.

Empathy doesn't neccessarily come naturally to all of us. We might lean more towards one type of empathy and find others more difficult.

But this is where I disagree with Obama. Empathy is not a "quality of character", it's a skill - which means it can be learned and practiced. I am far from perfect, but coaching means I practice all the time.

Here are some questions to think about:

  1. What type of empathy comes most naturally to you?

  2. How can you try to be more empathetic in your work?

  3. What benefits might being more empathetic bring?

  4. How can you make sure you are looking after yourself whilst being empathetic to others?

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