The Empathy Triad

Written on the 11 August 2015

We talk about empathy most commonly as a single attribute. But a close look at where leaders are focusing when they exhibit it reveals three distinct kinds, each important for leadership effectiveness:

  • cognitive empathy - the ability to understand another person's perspective;

  • emotional empathy - the ability to feel what someone else feels;

  • empathic concern - the ability to sense what another person needs from you.

Cognitive empathy enables us to explain ourselves in meaningful ways.

A useful skill indeed, when working with others to achieve outcomes. Contrary to what you might expect, exercising cognitive empathy requires leaders to think about feelings rather than to feel them directly.

An inquisitive nature feeds cognitive empathy. As one successful executive with this trait puts it, "I've always just wanted to learn everything, to understand anybody that I was around why they thought what they did, why they did what they did, what worked for them, and what didn't work."

Cognitive empathy is linked to self-awareness. The circuits of prefrontal cortex enable us to think about our own thoughts and to monitor the feelings that flow from them; and let us apply the same reasoning to other people's minds when we choose to direct our attention that way.

Emotional empathy is important for effective mentoring, managing clients, and reading group dynamics.

It springs from ancient parts of the brain beneath the cortex: the amygdala, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the orbitofrontal cortex, which allow us to feel fast without thinking deeply.

They tune us in by arousing in our bodies the emotional states of others: I literally feel your pain. Mirror neurons cause my brain patterns match up with yours when I listen to you tell a gripping story. As Tania Singer, the director of the social neuroscience department at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in Leipzig, says, "You need to understand your own feelings to understand the feelings of others." Accessing your capacity for emotional empathy depends on combining two kinds of attention: a deliberate focus on your own echoes of someone else's feelings and an open awareness of that person's face, voice, and other external signs of emotion. 

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Empathic concern, which is closely related to emotional empathy, enables you to sense not just how people feel but what they need from you.

It's what you want in your doctor, yo

ur spouse, and your boss. Empathic concern has its roots in the circuitry that compels parents' attention to their children. Watch where people's eyes go when someone brings an adorable baby into a room, and you'll see this mammalian brain center leaping into action. Research suggests that as people rise through the ranks, their ability to maintain personal connections suffers.

One neural theory holds that the response is triggered in the amygdala by the brain's radar for sensing danger and in the prefrontal cortex by the release of oxytocin, the chemical for caring. This implies that empathic concern is a double-edged feeling. We intuitively experience the distress of another as our own. But in deciding whether we will meet that person's needs, we deliberately weigh how much we value his or her well-being.

Getting this intuition-deliberation mix right has great implications. Those whose sympathetic feelings become too strong may themselves suffer. In the helping professions, this can lead to compassion fatigue; in executives, it can create distracting feelings of anxiety about people and circumstances that are beyond anyone's control. But those who protect themselves by deadening their feelings may lose touch with empathy.

Empathic concern requires us to manage our personal distress without numbing ourselves to the pain of others

What's more, some lab research suggests that the appropriate application of empathic concern is critical to making moral judgments. Brain scans have revealed that when volunteers listened to tales of people subjected to physical pain, their own brain centers for experiencing such pain lit up instantly. But if the story was about psychological suffering, the higher brain centers involved in empathic concern and compassion took longer to activate. Some time is needed to grasp the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. The more distracted we are, the less we can cultivate the subtler forms of empathy and compassion.

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