Cognitive Empathy vs. Emotional Empathy

Learn why both are important for living well with others

Remember the last time you were with a loved one who was feeling sad or hopeless? Maybe it was after a divorce, after they received a life-altering diagnosis, or after the loss of a close loved one. Their tears create a response with us. We feel moved to want to comfort them somehow. When you sat with them during these times, it was likely that you felt a bit sad.

We generally think of empathy as the capacity to place ourselves in another person's shoes, trying to gain a better understanding of their experience. Did you know that researchers have identified a few different forms of empathy? Two primary forms of empathy that have been identified and researched are cognitive empathy and emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy).

Although they are quite different, both are equally important for helping us form and maintain connections with others.

Why Empathy Matters

Empathy helps connect people, moving them toward each other in a helping and/or healing capacity. As Stephen Covey (acclaimed author and leadership expert) stated, "When you show deep empathy toward others, their defense energy goes down and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems."

As we live our lives at work and at home, we are continually interacting and balancing relationship dynamics. When we lack empathy, we are unable to develop and nurture those interpersonal connections, leading to strained relationships, broken trust, loss of relationships, and isolation. It becomes more difficult to repair conflicts, work collaboratively, or solve problems when we don't practice empathy.

Our society relies on empathy to facilitate connections and forward movement. When the empathy piece is missing, we become more disconnected and less effective in our productivity and innovation of new ideas.

Practicing empathy is important in a variety of relationship dynamics, such as those among:

  • Families
  • Siblings
  • Marriages
  • Dating Relationships
  • Friendships
  • Coworkers
  • Colleagues
  • Business partners
  • Community groups

Two different kinds of empathy (cognitive and emotional) reveal the ways we are able to relate to a friend or family member in crisis. There are distinct differences between the two types of empathy.

Cognitive Empathy

  • Taking another person's perspective

  • Imagining what it's like in another person's shoes

  • Understanding someone's feelings

Emotional Empathy

  • Sharing an emotional experience

  • Feeling distress in response to someone's pain

  • Feeling a willingness to help someone

Cognitive Empathy

When we practice cognitive empathy, we are practicing taking the perspective of another person. In essence, we are imagining what it might be like to actually be this person in their situation. Cognitive empathy is also referred to as perspective-taking, which lends itself to the idea of putting ourselves in someone else's shoes.

With cognitive empathy, we are trying to tap into the idea of placing ourselves in someone else's situation and gaining a better understanding of his/her experience.

In moments when someone we care about is hurting, it can be easy for us to maintain a distance from it because we can see the big picture. For example, if a friend doesn't get a job she interviewed for, you can most likely see her disappointment. However, you may also recognize that she is talented and will likely find a great job soon.

On the other hand, when we are practicing cognitive empathy, we can meet people where they are and understand why they would be feeling sad or disappointed after not getting the job. We practice imagining what it might be like to be them in that moment, looking at the situation or circumstance from their perspective.

Emotional Empathy

Imagine sitting close to a loved one, such as your child, sibling, or close friend as he begins to cry. What he is experiencing likely has an impact on us, doesn't it? We might begin to feel sad as well. When we experience emotional empathy, we are moving from the cognitive perspective-taking into a shared emotional experience.

Social psychology researchers Hodges and Davis describe emotional empathy in three parts:

  1. feeling the same emotion as the other person
  2. feeling our own distress in response to their pain
  3. feeling compassion toward the other person

They note that there is a positive correlation between emotional empathy and the willingness to help others. In other words, it is more likely that someone who finds it easy to practice emotional empathy will be moved to help that person in need as well.

It might be easy to see the benefit of emotional empathy in the overall health and enjoyment of our most important relationships.

Is Empathy Genetic?

Research has found that the ability to practice empathy is influenced by genetics. In fact, it is consistently shown that women are more likely to pick up on emotional cues and more accurately discern emotions than men.

In a research study conducted with the genetic testing and analysis company 23andMe, there was a specific genetic variant identified as related to our capacity to empathize, near the gene LRRN1 on chromosome 3, "which is a highly active part of the brain called the striatum."

It is suggested that activity in this part of the brain is connected with our ability to feel empathy. Although there is more research to be done, these findings are helping scientists discover more about the connections between genetic influence on the development and ability to feel empathy.

Nature vs. Nurture

Even though genetics have been found to influence our capacity for feeling empathy, there is much to say about our social learning experiences as well. You may have already heard the phrase "nature vs. nurture." This phrase references a long-standing debate among researchers, arguing what they believe to have a greater influence on our behaviors, traits, and conditions.

Some researchers suggest that genetics are the primary influence, while others believe that our environment and social interactions can help us develop things like empathy.

Social Learning

The social learning theory, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, combines elements of cognitive learning theory and behavioral learning theory. It is suggested that people can increase their capacity for empathy through modeling and experiencing empathy from others.

When a child has not had anyone give their emotional experiences any attention, time, or value, it is understandable how the child might likely continue to experience the world and relationships without this important skill of knowing how to empathize with others. The child would have missed out on things like:

  • being able to observe someone practicing empathy to know what it looks like
  • the feeling of having someone empathize when they are in need
  • having someone teach them the value of emotions
  • learning how to build meaningful connections with people

Empathy helps to close an emotional gap between people, creating a connection and a shared experience. When we don't know what a shared emotional experience feels like with someone, it can be difficult to know how to do that with others.

The inability to empathize can lead to trouble at work, in relationships, within families, and within society.

Imbalance

Too Much Empathy

As beneficial and valuable as the skill of empathy is, it is suggested that too much empathy can be detrimental to one's emotional well-being, their health, and their relationships. Emotional empathy is a building block of connection between people. The shared emotional experience prompts us to move closer to someone, to comfort them, and to offer reassurance and help.

However, emotional empathy means that our bodies are responding to the emotions we are experiencing while in the presence of the other person and their emotional experience.

When there is a balanced practice of emotional empathy, we are able to allow space for sharing an emotional experience with another person while not letting our own emotional responses get in the way. When our vicarious emotional arousal becomes too great, it can get in the way of us being compassionate and empathizing.

Feeling emotionally dysregulated can become overwhelming to us and result in us feeling burnt out and, ultimately, leave us not wanting to practice empathy because it feels too painful to be with someone else in their pain.

Our ability to practice emotional empathy becomes a threat to our own well-being when it results in feelings of isolation, being misunderstood, and feeling inauthentic.

Not Enough Empathy

There are some people who are better with practicing cognitive empathy, yet who have a difficult time tapping into the emotional empathy, as these two types of empathy are working from completely different systems of processing. This is the difference between cognitive processing and perspective-taking compared to emotional processing.

When there is an imbalance of empathy—leaning too heavily on cognitive empathy and not enough on emotional empathy—our connections with people could feel strained. Although the person you are trying to help or comfort may sense that you have an understanding of her situation, which can certainly feel helpful, it may leave her with the impression that she is a bit misunderstood, unseen, or unheard.

The important part of having a shared emotional experience with that person in the moment is missing when there is too much cognitive empathy and not enough emotional empathy being practiced.

The following is a simple example of what this might look like:

Example 1: Cognitive Empathy

  • Loved One: My grandmother just died and we were really close. (Starts to cry.)
  • Person Using Cognitive Empathy: I'm sorry, I know you are sad. She is in a better place, though, don't you think?

Example 2: Emotional Empathy

  • Loved One: My grandmother just died and we were really close. (Starts to cry.)
  • Person Using Emotional Empathy: I'm sorry to hear about your grandmother. I know you miss her so much. I'm here with you. (May become tearful or express sadness.)

Within this very simplistic illustration, we can get a sense of what it might feel like for the other person if we stopped with cognitive empathy and don't bring in the emotional empathy piece to the interaction. The person receives the condolences for her grandmother passing away and knows you are trying to provide comfort; however, with example 1, there is no opportunity for the person to have a shared emotional experience with you.

The shared emotional experience can feel quite comforting and healing to someone in need.

The Challenge

Practicing both cognitive and emotional empathy is challenging. It is believed that both can be learned with intentional and consistent practice. The unique challenge with emotional empathy is that in practicing, we are likely going to have to be vulnerable and in touch with our own emotional responses.

The ability to regulate our own emotional distress will be key, but it is something that can be very difficult for people to do because of things such as:

  • how we were raised
  • how people treated us when we had emotional needs
  • what people around us taught us about emotion
  • messages we received about the value of emotions
  • fear of becoming overwhelmed
  • fear of getting stuck in emotions with another person

Finding Balance

Cognitive and emotional empathy are wonderful partners and can be a fantastic pair when practiced with balance. The ability to take someone's perspective and understand what it might be like to be him or her (cognitive empathy), as well as the ability to meet someone where he or she is emotionally and have a shared emotional experience (emotional empathy), can be a game changer for most any relationship dynamic.

When people feel seen, heard, and understood, using both cognitive and emotional empathy, we can do great things together. This empathetic balance helps allow for things like:

  • Collaboration
  • Problem Solving
  • Creativity
  • Evaluation
  • Negotiation
  • Identifying needs
  • Meeting needs
  • Feeling safe
  • Emotional connection
  • Trust

What You Can Do

Do you want to improve your relationships with coworkers, your family members, friends, or your spouse? Practicing the balance of cognitive and emotional empathy can certainly help. Even if you feel you never learned how to empathize with others, or never had an experience of anyone empathizing with you, remember that skills of empathy can be learned.

There are many things we can do to begin practicing empathy in our homes, our workplaces, and in our communities.

Put Aside Your Own Viewpoints

We often don't realize how much our experiences and own beliefs are influencing how we perceive people and situations. Slowing ourselves down a bit to put those things aside can help us focus on the person in front of us and help us tune in better to what is happening for him or her.

Use Your Imagination

As people share with you, try to imagine what it is like to be them. Use the images they are sharing, their emotions, or their circumstances and try to place yourself there, just to see what it might feel like to be them in these moments.

Actively Listen

Many times we try to listen to people while already developing our response or defense to what they are saying. Not only are we not able to hear what they are saying, but we often miss key pieces of information that can help us better understand what they are trying to convey.

Give yourself permission to turn down the volume on your own voice and turn up the volume on the other person's voice.

Be Curious

It can be helpful to come from a place of curiosity about someone as they are sharing with you. As you ask them questions about their experiences, you are letting them know you are actively listening and that you want to understand. This helps people feel seen and heard and it's a nice way to practice empathy.

Don't Feel the Need to Fix

When we are around someone in need, especially when they are experiencing challenging emotions, it can be easy for us to want to jump in and fix it. We don't like to see people hurting and we often to want to make them laugh, cheer them up, and help them look on the bright side.

Even though you are trying to be helpful, this can leave people feeling unseen and unheard. Just offer space for people to share and remember that you are not responsible for "fixing" them.

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