Empathy has become something of a buzzword in the past year. We encourage people to approach one another with empathy. We teach our children that empathy is a good thing, but do we really understand what it is? How do you explain the value of empathy when leaders pride themselves in being cool in heated situations? When we become leaders, do we have to sacrifice empathy in order to maintain our cool and be effective problem solvers?
According to Paul Ekman, an expert on emotions and how to read them, there are three types of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy. All three types of empathy bring strengths and challenges to leaders. What is important is to be aware of yourself and how you deal with emotionally fraught situations. How are you responding with each type of empathy?
Cognitive empathy is being able to identify what the other person may be thinking or feeling. Cognitive empathy is very cerebral. It can be very useful for leaders in motivating teams. Cognitive empathy allows insight into what the team is feeling or thinking about a project, and a leader can capitalize on that knowledge, analyze it, and use positive feedback to achieve the desired results. When used in a positive manner, cognitive empathy demonstrated by leadership allows for employees and team members to feel understood and foster positive communication about how to achieve win/win solutions.
However, leaders need to be aware of the more negative aspects of cognitive empathy. There is power in being able to identify and understand what another person is thinking or feeling. Leaders who do not focus on the good of the whole organization, or fail to recognize that feelings are important, can use their understanding to manipulate or degrade their teams and employees. Many of us can think of someone who was highly intuitive and knew exactly what to say to inflict the most damage. They know exactly how you are feeling and what you are thinking, but they don’t care and use that knowledge to behave in the most destructive way possible. They don’t have any sympathy or connection to feelings. Leaders need to be aware of this pitfall, especially when trying to maintain a cool head. Are you aware of what is going on, but not using it in a way to demonstrate sympathy, but only personal gain?
Emotional empathy is where you can identify and feel what the other person is feeling. In many ways, with emotional empathy, emotions are contagious. This can be an asset because you have a full understanding of what the person is feeling because you are feeling it as well. This allows leaders to relate well to their employees and clients and gain a fuller understanding of their needs. Leaders can use emotional empathy to bond with their teams to pull together to look for mutually beneficial situations.
The danger of emotional empathy lies in emotional burnout, and getting stuck in that feeling or emotional space. If feelings and emotions are not managed in a healthy way, people who feel everything can burnout very easily. It is important for healthy leaders to have effective coping mechanisms for dealing with emotions and stress. There are times that leaders need to take a breath and step back from a situation, and do it with care. To do this, you acknowledge that there is a lot going on at the moment and that you need to take some time to think through it. It is okay to acknowledge that something is having an effect and that you need some time to process or decompress. This is important of self care, and it demonstrates to employees that you value self care and will support them in that as well. We all have to take a step back once in a while. It is important to do so in order to prevent burn out or the development of complete detachment and callousness.
The final type of empathy is compassionate empathy. Compassionate empathy combines the positive traits of cognitive and emotional empathy in that we understand and feel what others are feeling. However, compassionate empathy adds a third component. Compassionate empathy motivates us to take action to help. Compassionate empathy is essential when developing responses to conflicts or difficult situations in the workplace. It allows you to have an understanding of what is going on and how people are feeling, but it moves you into action. Compassionate empathy operates in the gut or instinctual space of your body. You see something and understand it on a cognitive level, you feel it in a heart level, and you are moved to action. Compassionate empathy is a healthy response that requires head, heart, and action.
Leadership requires empathy, especially when the stakes are high. Being a leader doesn’t mean that you don’t have feelings or understand feelings, but rather that you embrace empathy and develop healthy habits to keep you focused on thoughts (head), feelings (heart), and action (instinct).