What is Empathy?

In Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch answers the question of what is empathy by encapsulating empathy’s meaning and importance when he passes on this advice to his son Scout (guiding his development for the rest of the novel): “You can’t really get to know a person until you get in their shoes and walk around in them.”

So what is empathy? It is understanding and sharing the thoughts and feelings of somebody other than yourself, whether they’re a person, animal, or character from a story. It is crucial to develop empathy to build meaningful relationships and be compassionate. Trying to experience another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, enables social and supportive behaviors stemming from within rather than being imposed. Personal development results from being able to analyze ourselves objectively without cognitive dissonance. But it is easier said than done.

To quote Marilyn Manson, “you can’t smell your own shit on your knees.” While the lyrics of a musician representing misfits are no evidence (but a spot-on observation) of it, we naturally tend to like our ideas and opinions because we feel attached to them. Psychologists suggest that this is why we are likely to be biased without even realizing it. An interesting example is this riddle: A father and son were in a car accident. The father dies, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. A doctor came in and looked at the little boy in the operating room and said: ”I can’t operate on him because he is my son.” The question is: who is the doctor? The riddle shows how we can be blind to our own biases. Unless we can identify them, there’s no way we can figure out a way to overcome them and be closer to the truth, which is why most people will fail to guess that the doctor was the boy’s mother.

It isn’t hard to notice that most of us live in bubbles surrounded by those who look like us, share our ideologies, have similar educational backgrounds and values, and belong to the same class. The inevitable consequence is an empathy deficit–the root of many of our problems. Our social circles have become increasingly homogeneous. Because humans are prone to holding biases, being surrounded by people who agree with us makes it harder to be open to ideas that can differ from ours. As a result, we never feel encouraged to question ourselves and the basis of our opinions. In addition to this, indoctrination and propaganda have become tools of choice to manipulate the masses who adhere to ridiculous notions with confidence when they see they’re not alone.

But researchers have discovered that empathy is far from an immutable trait and is indeed developable. People can learn to understand each other just like they learned to hate on each other. The latter is more common since those in power benefit from dividing people to rule over them. However, people can take steps to acknowledge their preferences and move beyond their beliefs and opinions to try to understand those held by others. As a result, they’ll find it easier to get along with others. Empathy is not only understanding others’ feelings; it also involves allowing yourself to be compassionate rather than judgemental. According to neuroscientists, it results from these two parts of the brain working in sync: the emotional center (responsible for perceiving the feelings of others) and the cognitive center (responsible for understanding why they feel the way they do). Being empathetic ultimately helps us be helpful to others in a world where they keep finding people who make life harder for them.

Why is empathy important?

Empathy makes people better managers, workers, family members, and friends. But it’s bigger than just that. We all have to live in this world together, and connection and compassion are crucial to an inclusive, sustainable, and more humane future. Empathy is vital because it can help us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately to the situation. It is typically associated with social behavior, and there is lots of research showing that greater empathy leads to more helping behavior.

However, it is not always the case. Since empathy may inhibit social actions or even lead to immoral behavior, for example, someone who is shocked seeing an accident and is overwhelmed by emotions watching the victim in severe pain might be unable to help that person. Similarly, empathetic feelings for members of our own family or community might lead to hatred towards those we might be inclined to perceive as a threat due to our conditioning. Take the example of parents trying to protect their baby or a nationalist safeguarding their country. People good at reading others’ emotions, such as manipulators, fortune-tellers, or psychics, might also use their excellent, empathetic skills for their benefit by deceiving others.

Intriguingly, people with higher psychopathic traits typically show more utilitarian responses in moral dilemmas like the footbridge problem. In the thought experiment, candidates have to decide whether to push a person off a bridge to stop the train about to kill five others lying on the track. The psychopath would choose to shove the person off the bridge, following the utilitarian philosophy suggesting that saving five people’s lives by killing one person is ultimately good. One may argue that those with psychopathic tendencies are more moral than ordinary people (who wouldn’t push the person off the bridge) – since they are less influenced by emotions when making ethical decisions.

What is empathy in communication?

Empathy is an essential communication skill often misunderstood. It used to be seen as a “bedside manner”; now, educators and authors recognize empathetic communication as a teachable and learnable skill with tangible benefits. For example, for both clinicians and patients: Effective, compassionate communication enhances the therapeutic effectiveness of the clinician-patient relationship.

In everyday life, one of the most critical ways to confront your biases and privileges is hearing others with an open mind and utmost patience and engaging with diverse opinions to understand how they’re different from yours. It’s not that hard. You can simply be having lunch with a colleague and ask them about their routine. Perhaps you’ll learn why they leave early. Maybe they have to care for a family member or drive a different commute because they’re afraid of interacting with the police and facing discrimination due to their skin color. You might find out how they never feel heard in meetings or about their struggle to find the place and time to pump breast milk.

The more you get to know about other people’s lives, the more you will realize your ignorance and the hostile attitudes that might be stemming from it.

What is empathy in emotional intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence (EI), commonly measured as Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ), describes a concept involving the capacity or a self-perceived ability to assess and manage the emotions of oneself or others. Additionally, appropriately using empathy as a communication tool facilitates scenarios like clinical interviews by increasing the efficiency of gathering information and honoring the patient.

As a relatively new area in psychological research, it continues evolving. The concept of EQ argues that IQ, or conventional intelligence, is too narrow; there are more extensive areas in emotional intelligence dictating and enabling how successful we can be. Succeeding in a particular field requires more than IQ (Intelligence Quotient), even though it solely continues to be the traditional measure of intelligence, ignoring essential behavioral and character elements. Hence, we’ve all met academically brilliant people who are neither socially nor inter-personally inept.

It helps to understand that despite possessing a high IQ rating, success does not automatically follow. Reviewing the concepts of empathy and emotional intelligence to compare them to other similar ideas clarifies their importance as vital parts of effective social functioning. Just how crucial they are, is a subject of constant debate. Empathy is a part of emotional intelligence since it enables us to understand or feel what another person is experiencing within their frame of reference. In the general scope of emotional intelligence, empathy is in self-awareness, social awareness, self-actualization, and transcendence.

Types of empathy

Renowned psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman identified three constituents of empathy. By learning to empathize with those around you, you build stronger relationships and trust using these.

Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy, in simpler terms, is knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking—sometimes called perspective-taking. Suppose you put yourself in a friend’s shoes and get to know she might be feeling sad and anxious because of her debts. Cognitive empathy makes us better communicators because it helps us relay information in a way that best reaches the other person.

Developing cognitive empathy involves making well-informed guesses. We may misinterpret physical movements and facial expressions; a smile can mean joy or vitality, but it could also mean sadness. Before engaging with another person, consider what you know about them, and be willing to learn more. But keep in mind that your prior experience and unconscious bias will influence your interpretation of another person’s mood, behavior, or thinking. Your instincts may be wrong. Don’t be quick to assume or rush to judgment. After engaging with others, consider any feedback they provide (written, verbal, body language). Doing so will help you better understand others and their personalities and how they perceive your thoughts and communication style.

However, having cognitive empathy is not enough. To truly connect with your friend, you need to understand their feelings by trying to share them. And this is where the next type comes in.

Emotional empathy

Emotional empathy, also referred to as affective empathy, is the ability to share another person’s feelings. Some describe it as “your pain in my heart.” This type of empathy helps you build emotional connections with others. Emotional empathy is when you can relate to the other person on an emotional level. This type of empathy can extend to sensations, like how we cringe when someone stubs their toe or scratches their fingernails on a dusty wall. You’d look inwards to identify a situation where you were similarly anxious about the future. The problem itself needs not be identical since each individual is different. But the emotions resulting from it are similar.

Achieving emotional empathy requires going further than perspective-taking. The goal is to share the other person’s feelings and eventually form a deeper connection. If a person tells you about their troubles, listen carefully and resist the urge to judge the person or situation, interrupt and share your personal experience, or present an oversimplified or presumptuous solution. Try to understand the how and why: how the person feels, and why they think that way.

Next, it’s essential to take time to reflect. Once you better understand how a person might feel, you have to find it relatable somehow. Like asking yourself if you have ever felt similar?

Dr. Hendrie Weisinger, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence at Work, illustrates it perfectly: “If a person says, ‘I screwed up a presentation,’ I don’t think of a time I screwed up a presentation–which I have [done] and thought, no big deal. Rather, I think of a time I did feel I screwed up, maybe on a test or something else important to me. It is the feeling of when you failed that you want to recall, not the event.”

You’ll never be able to imagine exactly how another person may feel. But trying sincerely to understand them will help you get to know them better. When you learn to find a way to connect with the other person’s feelings and better understand what they’re dealing with, you’re ready to show compassionate empathy by taking action to help however you can. After understanding what your friend might be feeling and putting yourself in a resonating emotional space. You can use the insights gained from Cognitive and Emotional empathy to have Compassionate Empathy.

Compassionate empathy

Start by asking the other person what you can do to help. If they cannot share or do not want to, please don’t push yourself on them, and make sure you give them their necessary space. Instead, ask yourself: What helped me when I felt similarly? Or: What would have helped me?

It’s OK to share your experiences hoping to make suggestions, but you must not be conveying the impression that you’ve seen it all or have all the answers. You can relate it to something that has helped you in the past. And present it as an option that is adaptable to their circumstances instead of an all-inclusive solution. Remember that what worked for you or others may not work for this person. But don’t let that hold you back from helping. Do what you can.

With compassionate empathy, you can understand a person’s predicament and feel with them but are ready to help if needed. The balance between Cognitive and emotional empathy enables us to act without being overcome with feeling or jumping straight into a problem-solving process. Compassionate empathy is also called empathic concern. It goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings: it moves us to take action, to help however possible.

Examples of empathy

Here are a few statements that are good examples of empathy:

  • It sounds like you gave it your best shot.
  • I can see how difficult this has been.
  • The whole thing sounds so discouraging.
  • I can see why you would be tired.
  • The situation is so hard to deal with.
  • I can’t believe how well you’re holding up, considering how much stress you’re under.

Here’s a situation: Imagine your beloved dog is dying, and you try to keep her happy and comfortable as long as possible. But a day comes when the pain becomes unbearable. So you have her put to sleep, which is a choice made out of empathy.

While the given examples can help us understand empathy a little better, we can’t determine whether our attitude is empathetic or results from self-absorption. When we’re trying to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, it can be hard to understand what it must be like for them because it is impossible to understand somebody else’s experiences as they can. The golden rule is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So we’re prone to treating others how we would like to be treated ourselves if we were in their situation.

But like the saying “old is gold,” the golden rule itself has become old. Our improved understanding of human behavior has helped us replace it with the platinum rule, which suggests treating others how they would like. Let’s face it, we might never really be able to understand the struggles of a person, and it can be downright rude to assume we can understand how to treat them based on our observation. A person who is not black can’t possibly understand what it means to be black. A male ally can support the feminist movement, but they can never really understand what it means to be a woman. You can be an advocate for transgender people in exercising their right to life, but you can’t claim to fully understand the struggles they have to go through in their skin, no matter how sincerely you try. You can always keep an open mind in learning about people who are different from you, and if you want to avoid making them feel bad in any way, often the best you can do is simply let them be.


Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are often interchangeable, but they are not the same. Empathy involves sharing the other person’s emotions. In comparison, sympathy is a feeling of concern for someone else and a desire for them to become happier or better off. Ultimately, compassion is an empathic understanding of a person’s feelings accompanied by altruism or a desire to act on that person’s behalf. Some surveys indicate that empathy is declining in the United States and elsewhere. Such findings motivate parents, schools, and communities to support programs to help people from diverse backgrounds of all ages enhance and maintain their ability to walk in each other’s shoes. Putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes can be helpful. Still, when it becomes one’s instinctive mode of corresponding to others, it can be detrimental and blind them to their own needs and even make them vulnerable to those who would take advantage of them.

People who often prioritize the feelings and perspectives of others over their own may experience alienation and emptiness. They might develop generalized anxiety or depression to a considerable extent. Whereas psychopaths are capable of empathic accuracy or correctly inferring thoughts and feelings but may have no experiential referent for it: a true psychopath does not feel empathy.

First responders, humanitarian aid workers, doctors, therapists, journalists, and others whose work involves opening themselves up to others’ pain tend to be highly empathic. However, they may come to share the heartbreak of those they help or whose stories they record. As such “emotional residue” accumulates, they may shut down, burn out, and become less willing or able to give of themselves.

We’re all social animals and naturally desire to form connections as social animals. Developing empathy and, considering different perspectives than your own, opening ourselves to uncomfortable conversations can make forming bonds easier. “We have made it fraught, but it doesn’t have to be,” said Ms. Godsil, the Rutgers law professor. “Once it’s the norm, it’s wildly freeing for everyone.” So next time you struggle heeding Atticus’s invaluable advice, remember the following:

  • You don’t know everything. A person might be dealing with multiple factors you’re unaware of at any given time.
  • How you think and feel about a situation may vary, influenced by various external and internal factors, like your mood and mentality.
  • Under emotional stress, you may behave differently than you would otherwise.

Keeping these in mind will impact how you look at the other person and how you deal with them. Since each of us goes through our struggles at one point or another, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll need that same level of understanding from others.