An essential skill possessed by today’s leaders is the ability to show empathy, which is why many training and coaching trajectories devote a lot of attention to developing this capacity. This sounds logical, but which form of empathy do we actually need to develop? According to Paul Ekman, an expert in the field of reading and responding to emotions, there are three forms of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassion-based empathy.
Cognitive empathy is concerned with understanding how the other person is feeling and what or how he is thinking. This is basically a rational act through which you try to establish the ‘perspective’ a person is ‘in’ by posing questions and listening carefully to the answers. If that person’s perspective does not serve any functional purpose, you can try to change this by means of, for example, interviewing and coaching techniques. To give an example: let’s suppose someone has problems giving other people feedback. After posing some more probing questions, you discover that he is worried he might hurt the other person. Instead of saying that it’s not something the person has to worry about, you could try to change this non-functional perspective by tuning into specific values that this person rates highly. Let’s say personal growth is very important for him, then you might offer him a perspective that giving feedback is an opportunity for the other person to achieve personal growth (and, by the way, learning to give feedback will also increase your own personal growth). And that’s rather important!
Research has shown that managers who are experts in identifying the perspectives of their personnel are also good at getting the best out of them. It’s useful to note here that cognitive empathy isn’t just a skill you can use for setting people into motion who ‘freeze’ or choke up, but also for stimulating others to continue doing the things they are already doing. By intensifying the perspective, you are acknowledging the other person in his thoughts and behaviour and helping to maintain that behaviour: ‘It’s great to see you giving feedback to your colleagues, so that you and the others are able to grow!’
The second form of empathy is emotional empathy. This is where you experience/feel the same emotions as the other person, as though you have become ‘infected’ by them. Brain studies have shown that this is largely due to the presence of so-called mirror neurons. When the other person performs a specific action, these paths within the brain are also activated in yourself. An example of this is that when you witness someone showing grief, you will also start becoming tearful. But this applies just as well for all kinds of emotions. The essential factor is that you are connecting with the inner world of that other person. You can stimulate this by teaching people to deliberately slow down or delay their responses – so that during that moment of quietness, they enter their inner selves and really experience what they are feeling in that situation.
Emotional empathy comes in useful in many types of functions at different levels – due to the relationship of trust that arises from the deeper connection with the other person. And based on this relationship of trust, people can jointly engage in important themes and activities. Be aware though, that there is a risk involved here of getting sucked into the emotions of the other person, and that the emotions of that person can start ruling your life. So it’s vital to be able to shut yourself off functionally. You can imagine what an exhausting experience it can be if you have a coaching function in which you regularly have to deal with the intense emotions of others. And when these emotions ‘stick’ to you it can easily lead to a burnout if you’re not diligent. On the other hand, closing yourself off too much and putting the focus on shielding yourself will result in detachment or disconnection, very much reducing your effectiveness. In other words, in the case of emotional empathy it’s important to learn to find a balance in protecting yourself.Check out this short video for the impact of empathy.
And finally there’s compassion-based empathy. This is when we understand not only the thought processes of the other person and experience the inner world of that person, but we also feel the urge to help them. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, you can train this, for example, by consciously holding the door open for someone, helping someone carry their bag, or simply by asking how you can help the other person. There are so many occasions at work or in private situations when you can do something meaningful for someone else.
The challenge this time has something to do with this aspect. Take a good careful look around you to see how you can help someone without wanting to get anything in return. Then do that and give the recipient a smile. I’ll be interested to know what kind of impact that has on that person, but also the impact it has on you.
Enjoy being helpful!