Having empathy for other people goes a long way in fostering strong relationships. In fact, empathy is a fundamental building block for conflict resolution and understanding and bonding with others.
Psychological science has defined the term in many ways, but simply, it’s “the ability to perceive accurately what another person is feeling,” said Jennifer Lerner, a psychological scientist and the Thornton F. Bradshaw professor of public policy, decision science and management at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts. Her research examines human judgment and decision-making.
We need empathy because it motivates us to take action when we see that people are suffering, said Sarah Konrath, an associate professor of philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
“Across time and situations, humans need empathic skills and empathy in order to make societal cooperation possible,” said Lerner, also a former chief decision scientist for the US Navy. “As Charles Darwin [observed in 1872], the ability to recognize ‘the expression of emotion in man and animals’ plays a profound role in all societies, including nonhuman primate societies.”
And “in a time like the present, when the Covid-19 pandemic and brutal acts of racism are causing so much suffering,” Lerner added, it’s important to accurately perceive what others are feeling even if we don’t share those feelings.
What better time than now to strengthen your abilities to express different types of empathy and practice them in your everyday life?
Types of empathy
Empathy is more about looking for a common humanity, while sympathy entails feeling pity for someone’s pain or suffering, Konrath said.
“Whereas empathy is the ability to perceive accurately what another person is feeling, sympathy is compassion or concern stimulated by the distress of another,” Lerner said. “A common example of empathy is accurately detecting when your child is afraid and needs encouragement. A common example of sympathy is feeling sorry for someone who has lost a loved one.”
Each is more called for in different situations. But a “common mistake is to leap into sympathy before empathically understanding what another person is feeling,” Lerner said. Two types of empathy can prevent that relationship blunder.
Emotional empathy, sometimes called compassion, is more intuitive and involves care and concern for others.
Cognitive empathy requires effort and more systematic thinking, so it may lead to more empathic accuracy, Lerner said. It entails considering others’ and their perspectives and imagining what it’s like to be them, Konrath added.
Some work managers and colleagues, for example, have had to practice empathy for parents juggling remote work with child care and virtual learning duties, said David Anderson, senior director of national programs and outreach at the Child Mind Institute, in an episode of CNN podcast “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.”
But since the outset of the pandemic in March, that empathy has faded — reflecting the notion that cognitive empathy does take effort.
It takes work to interpret what someone is feeling by all of his cues: facial expressions, tones of voice, posture, words and more. Then you have to connect those cues with what you know about him and the situation in order to accurately infer his feelings.
“This kind of inference is a highly complex social-cognitive task” that might involve a variation of mental processes, Lerner said.
You’ve likely heard people call themselves “empaths,” in that they’re so deeply affected by the struggles of others that they take on the anguish and emotional burden. But there’s a difference between empathy and this state, which psychologists call “emotional contagion.”
Overwhelmingly feeling exactly what another person feels when she’s upset is actually somewhat self-focused and can lead to depression and poor well-being, Konrath said.
It also doesn’t help the person who’s struggling, because she would end up with a friend who feels as badly as she does and thus doesn’t do anything to help her.
“Empathy does not require that someone share the feeling of another although it may sometimes involve that,” Lerner said. Emotional and cognitive empathy are better for both you and the person who needs help.
Genetic or learned? What studies have suggested
Empathy is both a trait and a skill.
Some research has found that specific genes are associated with empathy, such as genes that trigger oxytocin — the “love hormone” that rises when we make physical contact with another human, helping us to bond, Konrath said. It also may influence human behaviors and social interactions such as recognition and trust.
Most people have the fundamental capacity to be empathic, Lerner said, which involves a brain network of the mirror neuron system, the insula and the limbic system.
Mirror neurons mimic the actions and behaviors of others, and are linked to more intuitive, emotional empathy. The insula regulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which control the fight-or-flight response and relax the body, respectively. The limbic system regulates bodily functions in response to emotional stimuli and reinforces behavior through memories.
“When we see someone else doing something, in our bodies we have sort of a parallel response,” Konrath explained. “If we see someone is expressing emotion, for a moment you might feel a reflection of that emotion that can help motivate you to actually figure out what’s going on and try to help them. That can help to explain a little bit about how we are wired for empathy.”
In this case, many empathic processes are automatic, but they can also be activated in situations when you have an incentive to be deliberately empathic — for example, when you’re trying to read your manager’s mood.
The other component of empathy is environmental, meaning it can also be reinforced by socialization. Our cultural, school, work and home environments and the values within them can build up or diminish our capacity to express empathy, Konrath said.
One of the best ways to incentivize empathy, Lerner said, is to create interdependence between people.
“If I depend on you for something,” she said, “then I have to become motivated to understand what you are feeling and vice versa.”
Building and implementing your capacity for empathy
Empathy can be learned, and you can start by practicing how you behave in your relationships with others, Konrath said.
When you’re talking with someone, try to imagine what her life is like for her.
Read his body language and utilize reflective or active listening, of which the purpose is to understand the person rather than prepare to respond while he’s talking.
During conversations, focus your full attention and time on listening then doing whatever you can so the person feels understood. To accurately perceive his feelings, you can ask questions: “It sounds like you’re feeling dejected. Is that right?” Or, “Is it fair to say that you’re feeling optimistic?”
Distraction led to less empathic accuracy, according to a study led by Lerner.
Spending time with babies, children and animals can be helpful, Konrath said — since they can’t verbally express their needs, you’d have to more intuitively assess their needs.
Awareness of someone’s pain can feel overwhelming, so you might turn away from it — especially if you think you don’t have the time to deal with it, Konrath said. But during difficult times, what people really need is someone to be there — it’s not about saying the right thing, but rather being present, listening and understanding.
“Learning to regulate our emotions and have the capacity to tolerate negativity is very, very important for mature empathy,” Konrath added.
The upsides of empathy
When you become more empathic, the people in your life might feel more loved, supported and cared for, Konrath said.
You might also feel more united with others, be able to resolve conflicts faster and achieve greater satisfaction at work, Lerner said.
“Unless you accurately perceive that your child or significant other is mad at you, you don’t have the knowledge needed to even begin resolving a conflict,” she added.
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A mindset focused on others’ needs can lower stress hormones as well. Empathic people score lower on scales for depression, Konrath said.
“Empathy is such an important biological system in our bodies that, of course, there’s going to be some sort of benefits right back at the empathic person,” Konrath said. “Being able to experience a hormonal change that would allow you to continue to care for somebody is very important for human survival.”