What Are the Different Types of Empathy?

As leaders, taking the time to understand the pillars of empathy will enable you to turn that knowledge into an arsenal for your leadership toolkit and ultimately guarantee a better employee experience.

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Published:
December 12, 2022

Empathy is one of NewRocket’s core values and something I strive to demonstrate daily. Yet, in talking with other leaders, it’s clear there’s a disconnect between knowing about empathy and putting it into practice.

We started the Empathetic Leadership Blog Series to highlight how we can use empathy throughout our work and personal lives. In the first installment of this series, we looked at what empathy is and why it’s so essential for the workplace. It improves communication, leads to better performance, and engages employees more.

But empathy isn’t a one-and-done concept. One of the fascinating aspects of empathy as a business practice is that it takes the shape of many forms and consists of three components: Emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy.

Why is it important to know and understand the different aspects of empathy? As leaders, taking the time to understand the pillars of empathy will enable you to turn that knowledge into an arsenal for your leadership toolkit and ultimately guarantee a better employee experience.

Emotional empathy (Heart/Feeling)

Emotional empathy (also called affective empathy) involves responding to other people’s emotions. You’re essentially sharing in or showing similarity to another person’s emotional state. This type of empathy can help you build emotional connections with others. Why are emotional connections necessary in the workplace, you might ask? U.S. Research and polling organization Gallup measures the employee engagement statement: “Do you have a best friend at work?” They continue to measure this question in employee engagement surveys because 30 years of data consistently correlates a response of “Yes” to increased company and employee performance. Research has repeatedly shown a tangible link between having a best friend at work and employee engagement and critical business outcomes, including profitability and retention. *

Cognitive empathy (Head/Thinking)

Cognitive empathy offers an understanding of why someone responds to a situation in a certain way. This type of empathy allows you to understand another’s perspective and think about their feelings rather than feel them directly. Cognitive empathy can help communication because it helps us convey information in a way that reaches the other person. It allows us to speak their language. This type of empathy can also be turned inward: the best leaders are aware of their own feelings and can clearly and appropriately explain them.

Compassionate empathy (Action/Doing)

Compassionate empathy is a hybrid of emotional and cognitive empathy and is also called Empathetic Concern. We understand why someone might be celebrating, hurting, or feeling down, and we take action to support that person. It’s the ability to recognize what another person needs from you at that moment, and then that recognition moves us to act. Interestingly enough, this one can be difficult for action-oriented people like me because the key factor here is compassionate empathy is action based on what the other person needs, which might just be listening, or a safe space to be heard.

Of course, there’s a difference between mere awareness of empathy and incorporating it into your day-to-day. But having that foundational knowledge helps put you on the path toward success.

Managers and leaders must think through the different types of empathy when interacting with their employees: leverage cognitive empathy to engage with your employees to understand their thought processes, emotions, and perspectives; utilize affective empathy to share in or show similarity to your employee’s emotional states; display compassionate empathy when taking action in ways that work best for what your employees need in any given situation.

To sum up

Empathy as a business practice can be a game changer, but it’s not a one-and-done concept. It takes the shape of many forms and consists of three components: Emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy. When you understand the different aspects of empathy, it can accelerate and deepen the positive outcomes for your people and your business.

Did you miss the first post in our Empathetic Leadership series? Read it here.

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