Empathy in Three Parts

Empathy is a major buzzword. It seems that everyone knows something about empathy and how it should be incorporated into daily dealings. While it’s largely positive that so many people want to spread knowledge about the importance of empathy, imagine the possible impact if the message was shared with an even stronger foundation of understanding. Insight is always helpful and learning about the three types of empathy will broaden your capacity to use the highly sought-after capability.

What is Empathy?

When you think about empathy, what images come to mind? You probably call up memories of engaging in a connection with another person, one that had an intangible sense of authenticity laced throughout. The warm sensation we feel in our heart space when we connect with others is the result of true empathy.

Empathy is generally defined as the ability to perceive the emotions of others and conceptualize what they may be thinking in relation to their emotions. The definition sounds simple but it holds the key to a world of profound levels of communication and cooperation.

The cultivation of empathy is vital to the successful development of compassion and altruism, not to mention that it simply brings an air of genuineness to our interactions which cannot be faked. Empathy combines brain and body functions and is an instinctive ‘skill’ or ‘strength’ that has been developed in human beings throughout evolution.

You may have heard of mirror neurons, which help us register and interpret the intentions and actions of ourselves and others. Modern empathy is connected to the mirror neurons and works to accurately identify others’ emotions and simultaneously remind us of our personal experience of the identified emotion. This sets the stage for sensitive consideration which can lead to tolerance.

The Three Types of Empathy

Daniel Goleman, widely known for his work on Emotional Intelligence, presented empathy as a construct with three distinct types. Each type of empathy has a purpose and presents itself in the right time and place. The three types of empathy are:

  • Cognitive Empathy
  • Emotional Empathy
  • Compassionate Empathy

Cognitive Empathy means you can understand and relate to another person’s emotional experience intellectually. You can identify their perspective and use your observer stance to help them see their experience more objectively. A great example of cognitive empathy at play is counseling. Therapists and counselors use specific listening skills and questions to empathize with their clients. Through cognitive empathy, counselors identify ways to reflect issues and experiences to their clients and encourage introspection and action. When you use cognitive empathy, you are focused on thinking about the feelings of others rather than viscerally experiencing them. This can be useful when quick, rational movement is necessary, as cognitive empathy helps preserve clarity of mind while highlighting empathetically sound responses.

Emotional Empathy is the type of empathy most commonly referred to. This type of empathy centers around the visceral sensation of emotions. In the midst of emotional empathy, you will notice that you feel the emotions of others in the moment you are interacting with them. Emotional empathy is invaluable in terms of gaining insight into the perspective and motives of another person. When you tune into someone’s emotions, it feels like you are closing a gap between the two of you, which can help make the other person feel ‘seen’ or truly understood. It’s important to know that emotional empathy can be very intense and overwhelming. It can even lead to burnout or feelings of resentment when not met with balance in the form of self-care. When you engage in emotional empathy frequently, it’s vital to establish clear healthy boundaries and allocate time to recharge your batteries.

Compassionate Empathy is the type of empathy that holds the potential to create a better world. This is what you get when you combine your empathic abilities with the internal motivation to help others. Just a step before altruism, compassionate empathy allows you to offer advice and support to others from a place of grounded authenticity. When you find yourself relating from a place of compassionate empathy, you will feel moved from a place outside of your ego and will notice that you place others’ best interests at the heart of your intentions. This is the type of empathy that steps into the light when you find yourself in the position to hold the space for someone to cry, help carry boxes during a move between homes, or let a friend crash on your couch after a breakup. Compassionate empathy mobilizes you to play a supportive role for others.

Incorporating Each Type of Empathy into Your Life

Each type of empathy is an important element in the complete picture. Everyone is wired differently and carries a unique set of experiences that shape their expression of empathy. You may find that you have a natural affinity to connect through one or more types of empathy. Notice that and use it to your benefit!

Just because you feel more connected to one type of empathy, that does not mean that you shouldn’t spend time nourishing the others! While empathy is often considered innate, it can be strengthened over time. Spend time observing your empathy skills and see where there is space for improvement. The first step to incorporating all three types of empathy into your life is identifying when and where you use them.

Sharpening your skills within each type of empathy will allow you to call upon them for appropriate use in specific situations. Your overall empathy will be more well-rounded, and you’ll have an inner understanding of what’s going on beneath the surface. This will help you use your empathy to meet your full potential in many areas of your life.

The Takeaway

Empathy is a must-have skill. The most important thing to remember is that no matter what your current connection to empathy is, you can develop it if you so choose. File away the knowledge of the three types of empathy and pull it out when the moment is right. Your intuition will tell you what type of empathy is fueling in each interaction, and before you know it, you’ll be able to call upon them as needed.





Dr. George Lagios

PhD, M.Sc. (CBT)

Dr. George Lagios holds a master’s degree in psychology, specifically in cognitive behavioural therapy, and a PhD in sexology. He is a professor of Psychosexual Therapy and author of two best sellers Would You Choose You as Your Parent? (2018) and Inside Your Mind (2020). He is also a clinical mental health counselor, psychotherapist and speaker. He has received the President’s Achievement Award from the Hellenic American Association and continues his research work on erotic desire.

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