How do you get to know someone better? And how can you support them when they’re struggling? 

One of the simplest ways to do this is by using empathy. Empathy is understanding and sharing how others feel. When we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes or try to imagine what someone else is experiencing, we’re empathizing. 

📺 Watch this (1:30)

Listen to author and speaker Simon Sinek explain how empathy makes us better leaders.

 

Empathy is something we can all cultivate – not just leaders.  It helps us deepen our understanding of the people we work with, and allows us to build trusting relationships. 

When it comes to empathy, definitions differ, even between experts.

We’ll use an understanding of empathy that has emerged from decades of psychology and neuroscience research. It’s evidence-based and useful for building empathy about unfamiliar experiences — like getting to know colleagues who are very different than you.

We’ll cover two types of empathy: affective empathy and cognitive empathy.

😮 Affective empathy

Affective empathy is when you see or hear about somebody having a certain experience and you feel the associated emotions. You recognize what they’re going through and match it to past feelings and thoughts of your own without much effort.

It’s what makes babies cry louder when they hear another baby cry. And if when you look at this picture…

…you effortlessly feel the emotions of laughing with friends or family, that’s affective empathy being triggered.

group of girls laughing

💡 You can activate affective empathy by simply looking at facial expressions and body language, or listening to or reading something that resonates with you.

If the picture above had no effect on you, don’t worry. This just means it wasn’t the right example for you.

🧠 Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy has different demands on you and your brain.

Sometimes, you can hear what someone is saying, see what they’re doing and even know what emotions they’re feeling as a fact. But you don’t know what it feels like yourself, often because you have no overlapping experiences.

This is when cognitive empathy comes into play. It’s using your intellect and imagination in a process called perspective-taking to understand what someone else is going through.

Research by Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research & Development at Institute for the Future, shows that we use imagination and call on different parts of our minds to simulate an experience that we haven’t personally had.

She likes to call cognitive empathy ‘hard’ empathy because it takes more brainpower than ‘easy’ affective empathy. And it’s this kind of empathy that we often fail to get right.

hard empathy is when you get your brain to somehow simulate something that you have no personal concrete experience in width=

When was the last time you practiced cognitive empathy?

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✨ Use imagination for perspective-taking

Vivid, detailed storytelling is powerful for driving empathy, providing we can have cognitive empathy. To practice cognitive empathy, challenge yourself or your team to try this perspective-taking exercise.

Ask yourself these simple cues to imagine someone else’s perspective:

  • “Imagine how they feel about what has happened.”
  • “Imagine the full impact that this has had on their life.”
  • “Imagine how this might impact their future.”

Think it sounds too simple to be true? Try them out while listening to an experience that is different from your own.

 

🗝️ Your key takeaway

Empathy helps us connect with other people, by sharing emotions and through perspective-taking for experiences we’re unfamiliar with.

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