3 Types of Empathy and How to Utilize them for Change
Each of these types of empathy helps us relate to others in a different way, and each is a necessary part of understanding in different situations
Empathy is an important first step to create change in any environment. Change can be inconvenient and difficult for many people, and understanding the need for change and the impact it will have on others is necessary to help us push through when it becomes hard to dedicate ourselves to actively making changes.
Psychologists have identified three main types of empathy, termed by psychologist Mark Davis as cognitive, personal distress, and empathetic concern. The first type of empathy refers to the ability to look at an issue from someone else’s perspective and to logically understand their opinion on a topic. The latter two types of empathy refer to a more emotional understanding of another’s feelings; personal distress is the ability to feel the emotions of another, while empathetic concern is the ability to recognize someone else’s feelings even if we do not necessarily share their emotions.
Each of these types of empathy helps us relate to others in a different way, and each is a necessary part of understanding in different situations. By understanding the different kinds of empathy, we can better relate to others and their needs, and drive change through its most challenging stages.
Many of us would not think of cognitive empathy as empathy in its traditional form. While it is important to be able to see things from another’s perspective, at first, cognitive empathy may not seem as powerful as an emotional empathy such as personal distress. However, sometimes it is simply impossible to feel the exact feelings of those whose experiences you could never share, and cognitive empathy is important for us to help understand the problems of those we could never share.
We should utilize cognitive empathy when we’re working out the nitty-gritty details of change, working with numbers and statistics. It is through cognitive empathy that we can help justify our emotional responses to the situation, and how we can find logical solutions to personal and emotional issues. Transparency and trust are vital to help others gain cognitive empathy for a situation, and we should be sure to maintain open communication at all steps in the change process.
Personal distress empathy is the type that makes you feel the emotions of the one you’re empathizing with. When a humane society commercial comes on with sad puppies and Sarah McLachlan plays in the background, many would feel an emotional reaction for the animals in the video and want to do something to help.
While too much personal distress can be harmful, it is also the type of empathy that impassions and drives to action. We gain personal empathy through shared experiences, and we should listen and learn from the stories of others to gain an emotional understanding of issues. Personal distress can help us find the passion we need to move toward change, and we should remember our empathy especially when we face challenges related to making changes.
Empathetic concern is perhaps the most powerful type of empathy. Unlike personal distress, it does not require a complete emotional understanding of a person’s situation, but it allows us to recognize the feelings of another and feel concern for their wellbeing. It balances between the other two forms of empathy and allows us to work logically while maintaining the passion of personal distress.
To use empathetic concern to our advantage, it is important to recognize the emotional reactions of others during all steps of the changing process and react with responsiveness and support. With empathetic concern, we recognize that emotional responses are just as important as logical ones and that all our actions are aimed toward better wellbeing for all.
By identifying the different types of empathy, we can better recognize how best to relate to others in different situations and recognize the best method to move forward for whatever kind of organization or social change we are reaching toward. Different people empathize in different ways, and by relating to the different kinds of empathy, we can help people with all types of experiences unite in the desire to change.