Guide to Empathy

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BetterUp Studios

10 min

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What it means

Empathy is our ability to understand and share another’s feelings. You can empathize by actually feeling what another person feels, or by simply understanding what another person feels, because you have felt it yourself and can apply the experience of those emotions. Empathy shows up in how much we give back to our relationships by being warm and encouraging. It allows us to develop deeper connections with others and derive greater satisfaction from those relationships.

Empathy can show in in three different ways. Cognitive empathy happens when we intellectually understand someone else's situation: we can conceptualize their perspective. Emotional empathy is when we can feel how it feels to be in the other person's shoes. The last type, compassionate empathy, is related to altruism— it happens when we are naturally drawn to help someone we connected to through emotional and cognitive empathy.

Why it matters

It allows us to connect with others deeply. Being able to understand someone else's point of view or their feelings is essential to creating deep connections and building healthy relationships. Whether it's with our co-workers or our families, empathy allows us to keep communication channels open, understand people, and feel compassionate toward them so we can more effectively work together toward common goals (Decety, J. E., et al, 2009).

It makes a good leader. As a manager, you probably know that making sure your team feels heard and understood builds trust and increases engagement. A manager’s ability to hear and understand their employees' perspective is deeply rooted in empathy. Studies show that empathetic leaders are better able to motivate their teams, help employees manage stress, and stay attuned to customer needs (Humphrey, R. H., 2013).

It is key for communication and conflict resolution. Research by Carnegie Mellon University studied the relationship between empathy and unethical negotiation. The study showed that empathy "discouraged attacking opponents' networks, misrepresentation, inappropriate information gathering, and feigning emotions to manipulate opponents." (Cohen, T.R., 2010). When people feel heard, they are less likely to feel agitated. When conflict does arise, an empathetic approach keeps it from escalating. We need empathy to deeply connect with other people, and once we do, conflict transforms into collaborative action and positive change.

Beliefs that show it is a strength

  • I have an interest in, and understanding of, the needs, hopes and dreams of other people.
  • I find joy in celebrating the success and achievements of others.
  • I can listen to the words, but just as easily read what’s unsaid through nonverbal cues.
  • I try to understand and validate other people’s emotions, with language like "I realize how complicated it is to..."

Beliefs that show it is a growth area

  • Being empathetic means feeling other people’s pain, and I don’t want to suffer, too.
  • I don't have time to hear about other people's lives and emotions when I’m trying to sort out my own.
  • We’re better off focusing on the logical and rational side of things; feelings are a distraction.
  • The workplace is not a place for feelings and compassion; it’s a place to get things done.

Tips to maximize it

Find common ground.

Breakthroughs in science have recently led to the discovery of "mirror neurons". These neurons show that our brain responds not only when we do something, but also when we witness someone else doing the same thing. In other words, our brains are driven by both logical calculations and our feelings about other people's experiences. So we are wired to find connection. If you're having difficulties understanding or relating to another person's ideas or feelings, try to find commonalities with them. The fact that you are both parents, for example, or the fact that you work for the same company. You may have the same routine or, perhaps, the same responsibilities. This will help you start opening up to their viewpoint.

Practice active listening.

When we listen to someone talking to us, we may zone-out, judge what the speaker is saying, or plan our next answer. Active listening helps us listen with empathy and "unconditional acceptance.” You can practice this kind of listening by trying to focus on your interlocutor's thoughts instead of yours. Can you catch your judgment when it rises, and go back to being an observer and listener? Try also to show your interest by asking questions, without interrupting, instead of giving your opinion.


If you tend to judge people's opinions or block out other people’s feelings, mindful meditation can help you by allowing you to turn down your mental chatter, which leaves space to observe other people’s feelings. As a bonus, meditation can also help us act more compassionately.

Activities to try

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