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Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

Clip art of person with top of head open and hearts escaping

Written by Judy Bankman

One of the most important components of Emotional Intelligence (EI) is Empathy. This word is often used interchangeably with the word Sympathy. While Sympathy refers to an expression of care and concern for someone’s suffering, Empathy is a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person. Empathy is feeling with someone, while Sympathy is feeling for someone. Perhaps one could say that Empathy is a kind of emotional solidarity. Empathy is crucial to EI because it’s the foundation of good relational skills. To relate, to communicate, to effectively problem solve, we need to be able to get out of our own experience and feel the experience of another.

According to Daniel Goleman, the psychologist and thought leader who popularized Emotional Intelligence, there are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.

Cognitive empathy is “simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking.” It’s understanding someone else, but in an intellectual way. For example, imagine a high school guidance counselor. It’s her job to meet with students and help them through a rough time in a class, or deal with a bully, or submit college applications. She listens, understands, asks thoughtful questions. If she’s a good counselor, her understanding is accurate and enables her to motivate students or bring them to their own solutions.

Emotional empathy, on the other hand, is when you “feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” I remember feeling this way when I traveled to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina to help with volunteer relief efforts. While there, I met an adorable five year old named Alexa in a FEMA trailer park I was working in. One day she told me about another child in her community who had been sexually assaulted. I remember feeling stunned and trying to maintain composure in front of Alexa. While I wanted to experience cognitive empathy for her and for her neighbor, I was actually experiencing emotional empathy. I couldn’t quite keep back my tears when I heard this story. I was feeling pain that didn’t really belong to me. Her pain and her neighbor’s pain were contagious.

The third type of empathy, compassionate empathy, is when we “not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.” Compassionate empathy was something I received from many friends and family members after I went through a rough break up about a year ago. I had been living with my partner at the time and I decided to move out. Immediately, I had several friends open their homes to me. I stayed with a close friend for about a week, a cousin for a month after that. A few friends helped me move my belongings out of the old apartment. Other friends listened to me cry and vent for an entire summer. After that, my mom took time to help me settle into my new home in a new town. These kind gestures were made out of love, for sure, but I also think they came from a place of compassionate empathy. All of my friends and family members know what it’s like to go through a break up and have a tough time. All of them could put themselves in my shoes. All of them reached out because they could feel me, and they would have wanted me to do the same for them. And I would have done the same.