Empathy: What It Is and Why You Need It

Empathy: What It Is and Why You Need It

Erika Krull

Think of a time you strongly connected with a friend. You felt their emotion and understood where they were coming from. Your empathy made you feel closer and more in sync as friends.

But empathy is more than just intense feelings. It’s the emotional glue that holds our society together. Empathy allows you to live and work with other people. You volunteer your time and encourage your coworkers. These experiences are all driven by empathy.

You probably use empathy each day more often than you realize. Take a closer look at what empathy is, the three main types, and some of the many benefits in your everyday life.

What is empathy?

Empathy is taking someone else’s viewpoint and understanding their feelings. You try to feel as they feel, see the world through their eyes. As you empathize with someone, you are compassionate and caring.

When you can put yourself in another person’s shoes, empathy can be a moving experience. Imagine seeing a person who’s feeling physical pain. A pinched face, a look of anguish, and an outward cry are all clues. Something hurts terribly, and it’s not getting better. You might react by flinching, pinching your mouth, and remembering a time you were recently hurt. Each part of your reaction helps you identify with that person’s pain right away.

Most people think of empathy as a single emotional reaction. But experts have broken it down into two emotions, tenderness and sympathy.

  • Tenderness – When you sense that another person has no specific need but is vulnerable.
    Example: You see Sarah sitting alone on a bench downtown. She looks about 9 or 10 years old, is without an adult, and it’s getting dark out.
  • Sympathy – When you sense that another person is suffering or has a need right now.
    Example: You see Sarah sitting alone on a bench downtown. She looks about 9 or 10 years old and is crying. Her right hand is bleeding, and she’s squeezing it tightly with her left hand.

Three Types of Empathy

There are three main types of empathy. With each type, you sense another person’s needs in a different way, and one type motivates you to take action.

Affective Empathy

Affective empathy is when you can feel and understand another person’s emotions. When someone shares a sad story or gets excited over good news, you sense their emotion and feel it yourself. Politicians and advertisers use affective empathy to sway you. When they stir up your feelings, you connect with their message.

Example: Your neighbor, Jim, talks with you after work about his dog. Jim’s wife just told him their dog had died while they were away at work. You have pets, and you know how you would feel in that situation. Jim’s shaky tone of voice and his frown clearly show his sadness. You understand and feel it with him.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy means understanding another person’s viewpoint. You step into their shoes and imagine yourself with their beliefs and thoughts. Rather than sensing a person’s raw emotions, you try to understand their personal experience. Cognitive empathy is a skill and can be helpful when motivating someone or negotiating.

Example: Shane is on his first day of work. He’s not sure how his new job will work out, but he likes his new boss, Jim. Jim is a funny and kind guy, not much older than Shane. He’s been at the job a few years and remembers what it’s like to start fresh. Jim tells Shane he’ll get the hang of it before long and that everyone is happy to help him. Jim notices how nervous Shane looks and encourages him a lot throughout the day.

Empathic Concern

Empathic concern is what drives you to help others. You go beyond sensing their emotions and understanding their perspective. Your empathic concern moves you to volunteer, offer help to a neighbor in need, or donate to a food bank. You support a person by taking action instead of only feeling their emotions with them.

Example: Without warning, Josie gets fired from her job at the end of her shift. She comes home in tears, and her roommate, Maria, asks her what’s happened. Maria senses Josie’s stress building by the minute. Now Maria feels a nervous knot in her stomach, too. She knows she needs to help Josie through this. So, Maria stands up and puts a blanket around Josie’s shoulders. She hugs Josie and makes two cups of tea. Josie calms down and feels a little better.

Benefits of Empathy

Empathy goes beyond understanding someone for just a few moments. It affects the way we get along with others and helps us cooperate when it really matters. Here are just some of the many benefits of being empathetic to others.

Keeping yourself safe

When you read other people’s emotions, you learn to protect yourself from harm. When you see the fear on another person’s face, you can sense danger without having to get close.

Example: A bad thunderstorm rolls in, and Eric steps out to look at the storm clouds. His son, Tim, sees a weather alert on TV showing a possible tornado in the area. After a few minutes, Eric comes running back into the house with a look of shock on his face. Tim knows right away that his dad has seen a funnel cloud, and both head for the basement.

Living and working with other people

Empathy helps you get along with people and share resources. You can put aside your own feelings of discomfort and help others because you know it will matter to them.

Example: Samantha gets up before dawn on the days she works at the hospital. Her husband, Jack, doesn’t need to be up that early for his job, but he gets up with her on these days. He packs Samantha’s lunch and makes breakfast, so she has more time to get ready. Jack could get more sleep and let Samantha take care of herself. But he knows Samantha’s days at the hospital are long, and he wants to make them easier for her.

Positivity and cooperation in your community

Empathic concern motivates you to act in helpful ways. Your positive actions affect everyone you meet and encourage people to cooperate.

Example: Matthew and Lisa live in a small town near a river. Heavy rain begins, and weather alerts warn of possible flooding. As the rains come, Matthew and Lisa check on older neighbors to make sure they are safe during the storm. When floodwaters get close to the main road, Matthew and Lisa spend hours moving heavy sandbags. Many others from their town work together day and night to keep everyone safe.

Empathy – Connecting and Helping

Empathy connects you with people in your family and community. When you understand how empathy works, you can extend it more often to others. Where will you use empathy today?


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