What is Empathy?

The word "empathy" comes from both Latin and Greek, and can be translated as "to see through" or "the eye of the other".

This term can also be defined as the ability to read other people, to feel what the other person is feeling, to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Other definitions mention identifying with the other person or their situation (identifying implies more than a cognitive understanding; it means that based on your own experiences, you can recall some of those same feelings. Therefore, empathy skills are attending to the needs and wants of others, listening, building relationships.

Developing Emotional Intelligence (EQ): EQ is the ability to aware of one's own emotions and others' feeling, to differentiate between the two and to be able to use this understanding on order to guide other people's thinking and behavior. It is more than being emotional or controlling your emotions; it is about understanding when emotions will be helpful and when not.

Boyatzis and McKee have shown in 2001 that high levels of emotional intelligence are correlated to higher levels of information-sharing, trust, healthy risk-taking and learning, while low levels of emotional intelligence lead to fear and anxiety.

Daniel Goleman, in his oohs Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ and Working with Emotional Intelligence, suggested that people with high levels of EQ are more likely to get to the top of corporations. To Goleman, emotional intelligence matters twice as much as other technical or analytical skills for star performance.

According to Daniel Goleman, there are five component skills that build emotional intelligence, namely:

Self-awareness - Understanding yourself, understanding your emotions, strengths, weaknesses. Understanding how these impact on others is essential to understanding the feelings of other people.

Self-managment - Managing your emotions and impulses. You do not only understand your emotions, but you also express them carefully, showing a high level of judgement and control.

Self-motivation - The ability to remain focused on goals despite setbacks. Strong inner drive will make it hard to break your spirit or thwart your confidence.

Social awareness - Understanding others. You possess compassion and understand human nature, which enables you to connect emotionally with others.

Social skills - Managing others. The ability to deal with problems without allowing your own or others' negative feelings to interfere.

Business results of empathy

Many studies link empathy to business results. Actually there seems to be a high correlation between empathy and increased sales, organizational performance and productivity. More important, empathy is also particularly critical to leadership skills.

Indeed, empathy facilitates the creation of trust, and without empathy people will lack sufficient flexibility for change, and won't be able to work well in teams and sell themselves. EQ is a skill required for all kind of jobs:

Leaders and managers need high EQ to represent their organizations to the public, to interact well with people within and outside the organization, to set the tone for employee morale. In fact leaders with high level of empathy are able to understand their employees' needs and provide them with constructive feedback.

Salespeople require empathic ability to quake a customers's mood, and the interpretational skill to decide when to speak about a product and when to keep quiet.

All professionals need to intelligently manage their emotions in order to achieve self-discipline and motivation.

Thus we shoal cultivate empathy

How empathy works

But how does empathy work? Is it a process of thinking or emotion? Is it a feeling, a thought or an action? Empathy actually includes both a physiological reaction (affective sharing) and a cognitive component. Some authors have suggested that other cognitive skills, such as self-awareness and emotion regulation are also critical components of empathy.

The four components of empathy identified by J. Decety and Y. Moriguchu (BioPsychoSocial Medicine in 2007), are as follows:

1. Mental flexibility and perspective taking - the cognitive ability to understand how another person feels and what they might be thinking, and also to imagine what it would be like to experience the world from their position.

2. Affective sharing - The reflection of another person's observable experience, feeling physically connected with the other person as though their emotions were contagious. You have noticed that when someone else laughs, you laugh, and you are sad after seeing another person cry. But what is the rationale behind our immediate and instinctive reaction to other people's experiences? How can we understand their feelings in that particular moment or situation?

One study use fMRI imaging to observe the brains of individuals. Researchers watched videos of people describing highly emotional events in their lives. The researchers found heightened activity in two specific areas of the brain: one that "mirrored" the storytellers being watched on the videotape, and another that appeared to be responsible for cognitively processing and articulating a description of the storytellers' feelings.

The one that mirrored the storytellers is called the mirror neuron system, which creates an automatic mirroring of activities associated with feelings, such as facia expressions. This system contains a special type of brain cells, or neurons, that become active when a person consciously imitates someone else's actions. For example, imagine you are sitting at a café, enjoying your coffee and watching the people at the other tables. All of a sudden, the person in front of you splashes hot coffee on her hand. You immediately "feel" the pain and empathize with this person.

3. Self-awareness - the ability to differentiate between the "self" experience and the other persons's experience. Mirroring can be very powerful, leading to identification between the self and the other.

4. Emotion regulation - in order to counterbalance the effect of mirroring, this component refers to the ability to regulate your own feelings. Failure to do so could prove damaging to individuals.

Note that self-awareness and emotion regulation are especially important for people working in social care, where professional boundaries and relationships are often challenged. Overidentification with the people they take care of, or lack of boundaries could easily overwhelm these individuals and cause them to burn out.


  • Adam Riccoboni and Daniel Calaghan, The Art of Selling Yourself.
  • Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bloomsbury, 1995.
  • J. Decety and Y. Moriguchi, 2007, journal of BioPsychoSocial Medicine.

See also:

  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati
  • LinkedIn
  • TwitThis