Chris Allen Thomas
Empathy is the ability of people to recognize and respond to the emotions of others. It’s the foundation of both sympathy and compassion. Withoutempathy, sympathy and compassion are more likely to be inaccurate and may lead to increased friction and resentment. This is because the individuals who are the targets of sympathy or compassion have heightened sensitivity to actions that are not based on empathetic understanding. They may feel that actions such as an act of charity or a compassionate word are degrading forms of pity if they are not based on an attempt at understanding the recipient’s reality. Compassion—real compassion—is empathy put into action.
In leadership literature, empathy is an ability to recognize a broad spectrum of emotional signals, allowing leaders to feel the unspoken emotions of other individuals or groups. For this reason, empathic leaders are capable of working with individuals from diverse personal and cultural backgrounds.
Empathy provides a foundation for guiding our behaviors toward others. There are two distinct kinds of empathy in the human experience: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy:
- Emotional empathy, also called affective empathy or primitive empathy, is the subjective state resulting from emotional contagion. It is our automatic drive to respond appropriately to another’s emotions. This kind of empathy happens automatically, and often unconsciously. It has also been referred to as the vicarious sharing of emotions.
- Cognitive empathy is the largely conscious drive to recognize accurately and understand another’s emotional state. Sometimes we call this kind of empathy “perspective taking.”
Some researchers have rejected emotional and cognitive empathy as distinctly separate forms of empathy, arguing instead that “true empathy” integrates both. However, recent research into empathy has found that the human brain responds differently when either cognitive or emotional empathy is activated. In emotional empathy, the thalamus and the limbic areas, involved in the processing of emotions, are aroused, as well as the mirror neuron system. Other areas of arousal are cortical areas, involved in face and body perception, and the premotor cortex, which links to the spinal cord and is believed to be involved in the direct control of physical behavior and is one part of the mirror neuron system. Emotional empathy increases brain activity in the same areas cognitive empathy does. But, cognitive empathy activates areas in the prefrontal cortex involved in language and processing of semantic content—or meaning more strongly than emotional empathy does. Finally, cognitive empathy is a more conscious, deliberate, and abstract process involving higher levels of abstraction, but is no less important.
When we look at emotional and cognitive empathy through the lens of emotional and social intelligence competencies, we see that developing cognitive empathy skills is linked to self- and social awareness, while developing self-management and relationship management competencies is linked to emotional empathy. This is particularly true with regard to negative emotions.
Cognitive empathy is deliberate, a skill that everyone at work can learn and needs to use. Emotional empathy is automatic; it happens to us, rather than us doing it. But, we can be deliberate in this process too, simply by attending to ourselves (self-awareness) and managing our emotional responses to people and situations (self-management). Among medical doctors, this skill is referred to as “bedside manner,” and it is something that can be learned and applied in order to bring emotional empathy under conscious control. These skills are more than worth learning as we all need cognitive and emotional empathy in sufficient measures to contribute to society and organizations.
Developing one’s emotional intelligence is not simply about being able to understand and relate to emotions. Developing emotional intelligence means learning the skills to become more aware of and capable of controlling your response to your own and to others’ emotions. It is also about being better able to manage relationships through awareness and control of emotions. In other words, it is about bringing emotional and cognitive empathy into balance. These two types of empathy are powerful when they are balanced in the individual, and even more powerful when balanced in an organization. This is because an organization at bottom is a network of individuals engaging in relationships.
There are many exercises and activities that can help us with perspective taking and cognitive empathy. For example, role-play games, in which one takes on the persona of another, is a great way to practice empathy. There are many variations of this exercise, including the reverse role play so common in relationship therapy.
No group is required to practice role playing. Some people act out different roles in their heads, while others may choose to write from the perspective of another. Journalists—ideally—practice perspective taking to improve critical interviewing skills and unbiased news reporting. Chess players are role playing when they play against themselves. And as any chess player can tell you, it takes a lot of practice to play honestly against yourself.
Controlling emotional empathy is a key skill in decision making. Since healthy human beings are hard wired to feel emotional empathy, the ability to control it is often limited. Not being able to control the intensity and impact that others’ feelings have upon us can handicap decision making at critical times. If a decision does not have to be made immediately, it is important to use time wisely to reflect on it. Holding off on a decision is a sign of strength, not weakness—particularly when emotions are involved. Institutionalizing information-gathering heuristics is a good way of ensuring that decisions are made in a timely fashion—neither too quickly nor too slowly. Sometimes decisions do have to be made suddenly, without the luxury of information gathering and reflection. We want to be our best selves when those times come. In the end, more people will benefit—and benefit more greatly—from a timely decision.
It is also common in organizational life that we can suffer from a lack of sufficient emotional empathy. Assuming health, a principal cause of this can be attributed to stress. We are least likely to empathize with others when we feel under attack. To make matters worse, fight-or-flight emotions are themselves highly contagious. Mindfulness-based stress reduction can be extremely beneficial to bringing emotional empathy back to proper levels—and bring you back to being your best.
If you would like to learn more about Emotional Intelligence, please join us September 30, 2013 for a 1-day workshop. For more information on this course and others, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (267) 620-9999
 Boyatzis, Richard, and Annie McKee. Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion. Harvard University Press, 2005.
 Goleman, Daniel, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
 Rogers, Kimberley, Isabel Dziobek, Jason Hassenstab, Oliver T. Wolf, and Antonio Convit. “Who cares? Revisiting empathy in Asperger syndrome.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 37, no. 4 (2007): 709-715.
 Staub, E. “Commentary on Part 1.” In Empathy and Its Development, edited by N. Eisenberg and J. Strayer. 103-15. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
 Nummenmaa, Lauri, Jussi Hirvonen, Riitta Parkkola, and Jari K. Hietanen. “Is Emotional Contagion Special? An Fmri Study on Neural Systems for Affective and Cognitive Empathy.” NeuroImage 43, no. 3 (2008): 571-80.
 Graziano, Michael SA, and Tyson N. Aflalo. “Mapping behavioral repertoire onto the cortex.” Neuron 56, no. 2 (2007): 239-251.
 Gallagher, Helen L., and Christopher D. Frith. “Functional imaging of ‘theory of mind’.” Trends in cognitive sciences 7, no. 2 (2003): 77-83; Nummenmaa, Lauri, Jussi Hirvonen, Riitta Parkkola, and Jari K. Hietanen. “Is Emotional Contagion Special? An Fmri Study on Neural Systems for Affective and Cognitive Empathy.” NeuroImage 43, no. 3 (2008): 571-80.
 Nummenmaa, Lauri, Jussi Hirvonen, Riitta Parkkola, and Jari K. Hietanen. “Is Emotional Contagion Special? An Fmri Study on Neural Systems for Affective and Cognitive Empathy.” NeuroImage 43, no. 3 (2008): 571-80; Benelli, Enrico, Erhard Mergenthaler, Steffen Walter, Irene Messina, Marco Sambin, Anna Buchheim, Eun J. Sim, and Roberto Viviani. “Emotional and cognitive processing of narratives and individual appraisal styles: recruitment of cognitive control networks vs. modulation of deactivations.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 (2012).