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To be or not to be empathetic – that is the question 

By Rukayya Zamroon

What is empathy? It’s the ability to understand and share feelings with another person, as well as being able to perceive things from someone else’s perspective. Empathy helps us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately to their behaviour. Approximately 98% of people can empathise with others. This excludes sociopaths, psychopaths, narcissists, and people who are psychologically unable to understand or relate to others’ feelings or emotions.
Having empathy is commonly known to be a good thing, but it often isn’t a priority in some people’s lives. Maya Angelou once said: “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” Whether this is true or not, it is something to think about. The majority of us are able to empathise but we don’t often do it consciously. Once we master conscious displays of empathy, many conflicts can be avoided; even resolved. Before we dive further into this realm of empathy, it is important to know its types.

Types of empathy

There are three types of empathy that psychologists have defined (although, be mindful that empathy is still being defined by social and cognitive psychologists). They are cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy. These can manifest in different ways. Try reflecting on your experiences at home, at work or school, or with friends and family. You’re bound to notice the different types in your life.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how someone else feels and to work out what they might be thinking. It is concerned with thought, understanding, and intellect, and it helps in motivating others, negotiations, and understanding diverse viewpoints. Cognitive empathy is defined as comprehending on an intellectual level. This type of empathy is ideal when you need to “get into someone’s head” or interact with tact and understanding. 

Emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy) refers to the ability to share another person’s feelings and emotions. It is concerned with feelings and physical sensations, and it helps in close interpersonal relationships. Emotional empathy is deeply rooted in someone’s mirror neurons. Have you ever seen someone smile, and automatically smiled yourself? Your mirror neurons fire up and cause you to smile too, by creating a sensation in your mind of the feeling associated with smiling. Emotional empathy involves neurons where, when one sees another person acting a particular way, their neurons fire in a certain way, making them relate to the action in their own body and their brain. 

Compassionate empathy is where you turn feelings into action. It goes beyond understanding and relating to other people’s situations and pushes an individual to do something. They spontaneously move to help the other person, if needed. It is concerned with emotion, intellect, and action. Compassionate empathy strikes a powerful balance between cognitive and emotional empathy, where the feelings of the heart and the thoughts of the brain are intricately connected. Compassionate empathy honours the natural connection by considering both the felt senses and the intellectual situation of another person without losing your centre. You don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed with the other person’s emotion or try to fix things with logistics; you simply act when needed, while understanding how they are feeling. 

Why is empathy important?

With the definitions out of the way, let’s look at why empathy is important. Healthy relationships require nurture, care, and understanding. For many individuals, a workplace is a place for teamwork. When people only consider their own feelings and interests, relationships will lack empathy and will soon crumble. Without empathy in your workplace, things that require a group effort will spiral into conflicts and disagreements. From a global perspective, empathy is infinitely important, especially when it leads to compassion. This pushes people to intervene and help when there are disasters or emergencies and drives people to help strangers. They know that they too will require assistance if things were reversed. 

How does one increase empathy for themselves and for those around them? One of the most effective ways for one to be empathetic is if they were trained as children. Teaching children to consider how others feel and to perceive things from other perspectives will help develop their emotional intelligence drastically. 

It is also possible for adults to increase their levels of empathy. You can start by reading literary fiction. Studies show that when people read fiction, their brains feel like they are entering a new world. This can help people self-identify themselves with and relate to characters in the book. Reading helps people perceive things in the protagonist’s point of view and perceive the story and plotline in their favourite character’s shoes. This shows how people can relate to others living lives completely different from their own. 

Listening to others is also an excellent way to develop empathy. Take time to listen to what others have to say to you by setting aside your own thoughts and opinions. Clear your canvas and allow yourself to repaint it with what the other person is saying. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted by things around you; make sure you make the other person feel important and valued. Let them know they are being heard. This will show them you care and lead you to care as well. 

For most of us, it is easier to understand people we relate to, or who we think are like us. This will suppress compassionate empathy towards others to whom we don’t relate or those who don’t fit into our usual group. To avoid this type of closed-mindedness, it is important to take the time to understand people who are different from us. You might have to challenge your biases, preconceived beliefs, and notions. Unlearn what toxic culture taught you. Consider another person’s point of view. Converse with people you might not usually spend your time with. Putting yourself in others’ shoes might surprise you by teaching you a lesson or something you otherwise would not have considered yourself. You might find yourself having something in common with the person you thought you would not relate to. 

 

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