Everyday Life

A Guide to Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings and view a situation from their standpoint.  

Types of empathy include cognitive empathy, emotional or affective empathy, and compassionate empathy. The first relates to understanding how a person feels and why they feel this way. The second refers to the ability to feel someone else’s emotions. Finally, compassionate empathy goes beyond understanding and feeling the emotions of somebody, it drives us to act.   

Empathy is fundamental to any human relationship, be it romantic, friendly, or even professional. It inevitably has deep effects on our dating life, by allowing us not only to think about our own interests, experiences, and beliefs but also to consider our significant other’s perspective. The same goes for our friendships: it is of the utmost importance that we take the time to relate to our friends’ feelings and make sure they feel heard. When it comes to our workplace, empathy comes in with teamwork. Group efforts and successful performances require a deep understanding of our co-workers so as to maximise the productivity of the group. Understanding people’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as their constraints, is key to guaranteeing smooth working relationships. The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations has shown a ‘correlation between empathy and increased sales, high performing managers of product development teams, and increased performance in highly diverse teams’. Furthermore, studies have shown that empathy improves leadership skills and facilitates effective communication. 

Overall, empathetic individuals tend to be more generous, more concerned with people’s welfare, and they tend to have happier relationships and greater well-being. 

A cognitive bias: the empathy gap 

The empathy gap refers to a tendency to underestimate the influence of varying mental states on our behaviour and to make decisions that satisfy only our current state of being. The empathy gap is also known as the hot-cold empathy gap, referring to two types of visceral states. ‘Hot’ mental states happen when our state of being and mindset are influenced by our physical, psychological, or emotional needs (i.e. hunger, exhaustion, fear, or sexual desire). A ‘cold’ visceral state is in a sense the opposite: it describes our mindset when we are rational and logical, not influenced by outstanding emotions.  

Being in either one of these states can lead to a lack of empathy. Indeed, being in a ‘hot’ state might imply that we see everything through the lens of our current state of mind. On the other hand, a ‘cold’ state may cause us to fail to predict our future emotions; in essence, we fail to recognise the temporary nature of that mental state, thereby making errors in predicting our future actions. 

It follows that due to the empathy gap, we may also err in predicting someone else’s behaviours as we fail to understand them. For example, if your friend is in a ‘hot’ visceral state, affected by anger and deception, and you are in a ‘cold’, rational state, you might fail to understand their (future) actions. This illustrates a struggle to consider how other people may be affected by their own emotions if we are not feeling these very emotions ourselves. And failing to understand others’ perspectives may often lead to conflict. 

Behavioural economists Loewenstein, O’Donoghue, and Rabin have suggested that our current emotional states are used as an “anchoring point” for our preferences, actions, and beliefs. This implies that we rely too heavily on our current mindsets to predict our future behaviours. We tend to downplay the role of emotions in decision-making because we like to think that we act rationally.   

Practising empathy 

The capacity to feel and understand others’ emotions is something most of us have albeit to different extents. While there is evidence that empathy may be subject to genetic predisposition, it is also true that empathy is a skill that can be improved, and like many other skills, the earlier we start the easier it is. Here are some easy tips to exercise your empathy skills: 

  • The easiest tip is also the one that is taught to children first: put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If you treat others the way you’d want to be treated, there is a higher chance that you will act in a way that limits misunderstandings and conflicts. This tip may work for simple actions like preventing physical violence or bullying, but beware: for more complex matters, an understanding of the other person’s character may be necessary. In fact, what you would wish to receive may differ from other people’s needs. For example, if your friend is facing a difficult situation, feels sad, deceived, or betrayed, they may wish to simply be listened to, rant and seek comfort. In this situation, you might choose to refrain from giving them tips or desperately trying to solve the situation (even if that is what you would need, were the situation reversed).  
  • Be a good listener. Listening may be quite hard for some of us, but a good way to start is to not interrupt someone when they talk. You can also ask for clarification or more details, or even rephrase what has been said to show you have been paying attention and are fully invested in the conversation. Again, remember that giving your opinion is not always necessary, and simply giving someone the space and opportunity to talk may be sufficient. 
  • Be fully present when you are with people. Show that you are open to communication, fully invested and not distracted. This means putting away your phone, not accepting calls, avoiding fidgeting, etc. A study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, reports that words account for only 7% of what we are trying to communicate. “The other 93% of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language.” Be present and you will be less likely to miss these parts of the message.  
  • Give genuine recognition. Saying ‘You’re right’ or ‘Thank you’ goes a long way. In the workplace, do not hesitate to tell someone they’ve done a good job, but you can also go further and personalise the recognition: ‘I would have missed it if you had not pointed it out’ or ‘your research is particularly thorough’ 
  • Smile! If you do, not only do you make the atmosphere more benevolent and accepting, but you will also encourage your interlocutor to communicate fully and not hold back. Smiles are contagious: they make our brain release feel-good chemicals and activate reward centres. 
  • Other ways to encourage people to communicate and make them feel heard are to nod at them, make eye contact, and use their names. This can make a huge impact. 
  • Do not dismiss other people’s thoughts and beliefs simply because they do not align with yours. Encourage your interlocutor to develop their ideas and explain their reasoning: “That’s interesting, how did you get to that conclusion?” 
  • Lastly, look for deeper and more meaningful conversations. By learning more about someone’s background and beliefs, you will inevitably understand their viewpoint better. Bonus points if you apply all the tips mentioned above while doing so!

Empathy is an essential skill. However, if used on its own it can become a tool for deceiving others: people who are good at reading and understanding others’ feelings can make for good manipulators. To become a beneficial instrument and be of valuable application, empathy should be coupled with sympathy, critical thinking, and motivation. 

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