Updated: Nov 14
All human beings are born with a capacity for empathy, but ultimately, empathy is a learned behavior—much like language.
Just as language improves our ability to communicate, empathy improves our ability to connect emotionally with other people. Empathy strengthens friendships, encourages intimacy, and makes great teams. It helps us remain accountable and support others.
What is empathy, though?
If you’re a trauma-informed leader who hopes to become a better team member, the answer to that question is important. Luckily, we’ve broken it all down for you, along with some advice on how to cultivate empathy.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the technical term for the popular idiom “to put yourself in someone’s shoes.” When you are empathetic, you understand another person’s human experience and can imagine what it is like to be them. You feel their feelings and see what’s happening from their perspective.
Empathy allows you to connect emotionally with another person by sitting with them in their experience, no matter how painful it is.
Empathy and sympathy are not the same
Empathy is centered around compassion and understanding. Sympathy is closer to pity.
When we are sympathetic, we can see that another person is suffering and acknowledge that suffering. But, we might also feel relief in not being the one who is suffering. When we are empathetic, we access what it feels like to suffer and can understand the other person on a deeper level.
Where sympathy says, “How sad for you,” empathy says, “How terrible. I’m right here with you.”
The head, heart, and gut model of understanding
In the trauma-informed model, we often use the head, heart, and gut model of understanding as a way to bring awareness to our own and others’ thought processes. We can appreciate the differences, notice which methods we use most often, and see where communication may thrive or suffer thanks to similar or disjointed methods.
Head people are thinkers. They like to logic out problems. Heart people are feelers. They connect to emotions. And gut people are intuitive—they might not know why, but they know what they want.
This head, heart, and gut model can also be applied to the three types of empathy. If you already know what kind of thinker you are, it might be easy to see which types of empathy are easier for you to access.
The three types of empathy
Last week, we explored emotional intelligence and Daniel Goleman’s Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) on The Art of Trauma-Informed. Goleman’s work also discusses empathy, and it categorizes empathy into a head, heart, and gut model.
1 - Cognitive empathy (head)
Cognitive empathy refers to our ability to understand people’s perspectives and how our experiences relate to our feelings. Rather than access feelings directly, we must think about feelings. Cognitive empathy can be seen through statements like:
“It makes sense why you feel that way.”
“I see why you feel frustrated when I don’t respond to your emails quickly.”
“I’m feeling angry. And I’m feeling annoyed that I am angry because I want to be calm. I also understand why talking to X makes me angry.”
It’s a common experience to be able to identify your feelings but not know where they are coming from. If you can relate to that, working on developing your cognitive empathy could be beneficial.
2 - Emotional empathy (heart)
Emotional empathy doesn’t require thinking. When you are emotionally empathetic, you can physically feel another person’s emotions. If you’ve ever heard someone referred to as an “empath,” it usually means that they are exceptional at emotional empathy.
Emotional empathy is often a learned skill that we don’t realize we’re learning at the time. While some people are naturally more emotionally empathetic, emotional empathy is a skill that anyone can improve on.
3 - Empathic concern (gut)
The third type of empathy is empathetic concern. Empathetic concern refers to our ability to instinctually sense what others need from us. People with a high level of empathetic concern often think, “What can I do for them?” and then do it.
The answer may involve completing a simple task or saying something comforting. Often, others simply need you to be present with them.
For that reason, empathetic “gut” people excel at being present, comforting, and supportive.
Empathy makes great leaders
Empathy is a professional superpower because team members who practice empathy at work create a stronger, more supported and supportive team. Empathetic leaders are naturally less toxic and resist power imbalances at work—because they understand on a deep level how certain behaviors make others feel.
Empathetic leaders are more likely to show appreciation and take accountability for mistakes because they are connected to how these actions make their team feel. Emotional awareness is often seen as a skill that doesn’t have a place in professional settings—but the science is changing that opinion.
Empathy enables leaders to become trauma-informed, and when you have trauma-informed leaders in your organization, employees and clients feel safer, more valued, and more motivated.
Final Thoughts: Empathy is a learned behavior
The key takeaway I want you to have is that empathy is a learned behavior. Like any skill, you can work on improving your empathy and becoming emotionally attuned to your team members and colleagues.
Don’t be discouraged when progress is slow. Progress is not linear—you may take two steps forward and one step back. And changing your behaviors and thought patterns is difficult work that takes time. Becoming trauma-informed is a journey that lasts a lifetime.
Every Monday at 12 PM EST, we host Intentional Conversations. These hour-long, free networking sessions give you a space to talk to other professionals interested in the trauma-informed model. We’ll run them until December 12, 2022, so take advantage of the opportunity while you still can!