Third Doorway to Compassion

Emotional Empathy

In the last two blogs we explored two forms of empathy: cognitive empathy (understanding another’s perspective) and empathic concern (sensing what another needs). This week we look at the third and final form of empathy identified by Daniel Goleman: emotional empathy or feeling what someone else feels.  

Feeling what another feels is a natural part of being human. When babies hear another baby cry, they start crying. After about 14 months of age, not only do babies cry when they hear the distress of other babies, they try to do something to alleviate it. In other words, they express compassion. How do you respond when you see someone being hurt in real life or on a screen? Is there a part of you that reacts involuntarily by feeling the pain yourself and wanting to help?

It’s easier to notice and react to pain when it is physical. However, when the pain is psychological or emotional, it is harder to notice and sometimes easier to ignore.

I frequently wonder if our ability to feel emotional empathy has been stunted by the brunt of 24/7 news cycle filled with pictures of human suffering near and far. Has this inured us to the less obvious or hidden suffering that exists in more benign circumstances such as conversations with families over the holidays, or in meetings at work or in our communities?

When others are being “difficult” in a meeting, it is tempting to override our natural inclination to empathize and be “difficult” right back. What new possibility might open if you paused, sensed inside for any clues as to how this person might be feeling in this moment? See if you can distinguish between your own feelings and what others might be feeling. How might you respond differently if you had even a small sensation that indicated how they might be feeling?

What possibilities might open if you asked yourself a few humanizing questions like, “Why might this person or these people be behaving this way? What might be going on for these folks? What are they experiencing right now?” You could ask a question that helps you know. “How are you responding to what’s been said thus far?” Or, “What’s the most important aspect of this topic for you?”

It is likely that if you empathize with others by making an honest attempt to feel what they feel, investigate what they might need, and understand their perspectives, the whole tenor of the conversation will change. People will feel safer, more open to what others are saying, and more willing to explore common ground.

Using the three forms of empathy does not mean that everyone will agree or that there won’t be conflict. However, when we experience empathy for others, we usually then experience compassion for them and are better equipped to stay connected to them, understand their views, and even find solutions or ways forward that respond in some way to what everyone in the situation needs.

Mary’s book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is now available.  Click here to purchase it.

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