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  • Heather Davis

Empathy Connects & Unites; Personal Distress & Contagion Divide

You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” – John Steinbeck

Empathy is the foundation of close connection and for our relationships with others.

Empathy allows us to share our experiences, emotions and common needs. It serves a vital function in both our interpersonal relations but also for society as a whole.

It’s empathy that stops bad behavior: when we see and feel that we are causing pain. It sets the foundation for morality and compassion.

The ability to understand and feel what another is feeling is what connects us each to a shared humanity that goes beyond outward differences. It helps us see ourselves in the soul in front of us, regardless of race or political affiliation or orientation or species.

Empathy key to personal, professional relationship success

Whether at home, in the workplace or in our social circles, empathy is fundamental for personal and professional relationship success. Studies confirm that empathetic individuals are better parents, friends, co-workers and managers.

People with higher empathy levels have been shown to be more socially competent and function better within society. They have broader and larger social circles and support, and they report greater long-term relationship satisfaction.

Eisenberg (2002) found that regardless of age, empathy was affiliated with more positive and meaningful relationships as well as greater life satisfaction.

Beyond sympathy and compassion

Empathy is separate from sympathy which includes feeling for someone, generally in regards to another’s suffering. Sympathy alone however, doesn’t generally lead to helping action.

Compassion takes it a step further. Compassion is different in that adds the want to alleviate suffering to feelings of concern for someone else (Eisenberg, 2002).

But while sympathy and compassion are short-term feelings, empathy goes further and involves taking on vicariously, the feelings of another as our own. Almost as if the experience is happening to us, we feel another’s joy or their suffering.

To empathize involves being able to identify and connect with the emotions of others. It requires a respect and value of others and their feelings.

The caring is fundamental. But studies show that we can do that effectively without having been through that experience ourselves. We don’t have to have been there, to care.

Must we walk in someone else’s shoes?

Research has shown that having identifying with, and having empathy for others is not dependent on having experienced the same situation ourselves.

Batson et al. (1996) found that while having actually “walked in someone’s shoes” can impact empathy level, both men and women can exhibit a high degree of empathy, regardless of similar prior experience.

Women showed increased empathy for others when they had previously had that same experience. Men did not.

Emotional vs. cognitive empathy

Science distinguishes between two kinds of empathy: emotional and cognitive.

According to Hodges and Myers (2007), emotional empathy has three parts:

First, we must feel and share the same emotion as someone else. Secondly, emotional empathy involves experiencing our own sense of personal distress in reaction to someone else’s situation.

The final part is when we feel compassion for another in response and want to help.

However, it’s possible to show sympathy and want to help another while having no clue of how he or she thinks or feels. Empathy through emotion alone isn’t enough.

Our brains need in on the action in order for us to truly understand another’s point-of-view. Cognitive empathy takes it a step further.

Empathetic accuracy & emotional intelligence

Cognitive empathy, also known also as empathetic accuracy, is the foundation of emotional intelligence.

Rather than something innate, it’s more of a developed skill or ability that helps to accurately identify and understand the thoughts and feelings of another.

Our level of empathy is impacted by how well we are able to use our feelings and thinking in combination. Individuals with greater empathetic accuracy are more emotionally self-aware, and are better able to connect and empathize with the emotions of others.

Depending on the circumstances, empathy in practice likely includes both instinctive emotional feedback as well as a cognitive, learned component.

When, how, and to whom we empathize is strongly influenced by social and cultural influences. It is cognitive empathy that must kick in if emotional empathy is absent due to group differences in race, culture, gender or socioeconomic status.

Empathy is impacted by societal, cultural & situational factors

The capability for empathy ranges among individuals.

The roots of differences in compassion lie in childhood socialization and development, in genetics and are strongly modified by cultural norms and practices.

A striking example, on full display during the pandemic, is the vast difference between America’s hyper-individualistic, ‘don’t tread on me’ response to a public health crisis vs. how more collectivist societies were able to harness a more unified reaction.