Empathy comes in three types.
Cognitive empathy, also known as ‘perspective-taking’ is not really what most of us would think of as empathy at all.
Cognitive empathy is basically being able to put yourself into someone else’s place, and see their perspective.
It is a useful skill, particularly in negotiations for example, or for managers. It enables you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but without necessarily engaging with their emotions. It does not, however, really fit with the definition of empathy as ‘feeling with’, being a much more rational and logical process.
Empathy… For Bad?
It is possible to show cognitive empathy without having any fellow-feeling or sympathy with it. It is fair to say that most of us would understand this fellow-feeling to be a key part of empathy.
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, notes in his blog that torturers would need to have good cognitive empathy to work out how best to hurt someone, but without having any sympathy towards them.
Emotional empathy is when you quite literally feel the other person’s emotions alongside them, as if you had ‘caught’ the emotions.
Emotional empathy is also known as ‘personal distress’ or ‘emotional contagion’. This is closer to the usual understanding of the word ‘empathy’, but more emotional.
Emotional empathy is probably the first type of empathy that any of us feel as children. It can be seen when a mother smiles at her baby, and the baby ‘catches’ her emotion and smiles back. Less happily, perhaps, a baby will often start to cry if he or she hears another baby crying.
What About Compassion?
Compassionate empathy is what we usually understand by empathy: feeling someone’s pain, and taking action to help.
The name, compassionate empathy, is consistent with what we usually understand by compassion. Like sympathy, compassion is about feeling concern for someone, but with an additional move towards action to mitigate the problem.
Compassionate empathy is the type of empathy that is usually most appropriate.
As a general rule, people who want or need your empathy don’t just need you to understand (cognitive empathy), and they certainly don’t need you just to feel their pain or, worse, to burst into tears alongside them (emotional empathy).
Look at this post on how to deal with trolls.