I have taken many personality assessments over the years and most of them tell me that I have a low degree of empathy.
Empathy is a complex topic. Psychologists Goleman and Ekman have identified 3 different types of empathy. These include:
1. Cognitive Empathy - Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize how another person is feeling and what they might be thinking. Cognitive empathy means you can understand the emotions and their source, but you aren’t consumed by them.
2. Emotional Empathy - Emotional empathy occurs when a person actually feels the emotions coming from another person. In a way, emotions are contagious to someone with emotional empathy. If a friend feels sad, the person with emotional empathy will start to feel sad too.
3. Compassionate Empathy - Compassionate Empathy occurs when someone cares about the emotions of another person. Just because you understand the emotions (Cognitive Empathy) and/or feel the emotions of others (Emotional Empathy) doesn’t mean that you are naturally moved to help the other person. People with high Compassionate Empathy often work to help everyone they can.
Personally, I believe I have high cognitive empathy. I generally do a good job of reading the emotions of other people and guessing about why they might feel the way they do. It makes me a good consultant in many situations because I can detect underlying issues with our clients and help them to overcome them.
However, I fall short on emotional and compassionate empathy. It’s not that I don’t care, its simply that I’m not consumed with other people’s emotions. I’ve been told many times in my life that when other people are upset, I remain very even and logical. At times, this is a strength because it allows me to think clearly while other people are struggling with strong emotions. I can sometimes be a calming and logical presence that help people to recover from emotional outbreaks and figure out the next best steps to take.
At other times, this has been a weakness. This has really come to my attention as I’ve worked with Bethany on our team. Bethany has high empathy. I would say she has high cognitive empathy (she is amazing at recognizing feelings and possible thought processes behind those feelings), some emotional empathy (she feels what others feel, but it doesn’t consume her), and she definitely has high compassionate empathy (she wants to help everyone). Watching her interact with people has taught me the power of empathy.
While I can’t change how I fundamentally think, I can change how I respond to people and I’ve noticed something simple that Bethany does that has been especially powerful. She simply acknowledges emotions when she sees them.
For example, Bethany was talking with a supervisor about how he manages his team. He had been struggling with several challenges over the past few weeks and he was clearly frustrated. My approach would have been to jump into the next steps by exploring what actions we could take. But Bethany took a moment. She let the supervisor vent for a few minutes and then acknowledged the emotions by saying, “that must be very frustrating for you”.
It was such a simple thing to do, but it was extremely powerful. The supervisor took a breath at the acknowledgement and agreed. He did a little more venting and Bethany again acknowledged it. “It seems like you only want the best for your people, but they don’t seem to acknowledge that from you.”, she offered. He agreed again, paused, and then asked about the next steps.
Taking an “empathy pause” is a simple way to help people transition from feeling to thinking and to show that you care (note: hopefully you actually do care!). I’ve started to use the empathy pause in many of my conversations and I’ve found it to be very well received. People appreciate being heard and taking the time to acknowledge the emotions present before trying to fix them helps the other person transition themselves. Humans don’t think logically and emotionally at the same time. We have to process our emotions before we are able to get into thinking more logically about our next steps. The empathy pause helps create that transition for the other person.
So the next time someone gives you bad news or expresses frustration about something in their lives, practice the empathy pause. Take a moment to simply say “wow, that stinks” or “that must be hard” before moving on. Then, when the other person is clearly done venting, see if you can help them figure out the next steps forward.
You’ll find that you can use the power of empathy to help people, even if you aren’t naturally empathetic.