Empathy is defined simply as the awareness of the feelings and emotions of others.

Empathy is what facilitates prosocial or, in other words, helping behaviour that comes from within and is not forced. This makes us a more compassionate society that is willing to understand each other’s feelings and take action. Daniel Goleman, the author of the book Emotional Intelligence, also says that empathy is simply the ability to understand others’ emotions. He also, however, notes that at a deeper level, it is about defining, understanding, and reacting to the concerns and needs that lie under others’ emotional responses and reactions.

As a word, empathy is constantly heard but empathy is not simply a combination of letters. It is not simply a word in the dictionary. It is one of the fundamental aspects that make us human. But before we get more into that let’s get some things straight:

Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Compassion

Empathy stands in contrast to sympathy which is the ability to truly understand a person’s point of view or experience, however, it is without the emotional layer that comes with it. We should also make sure to differentiate it from compassion though both are used in the same context. Compassion is the full understanding of others’ distress together with a desire to ease it, meaning you have the intention of acting upon whatever the other person is going through.

Empathy goes far beyond sympathy, which might be considered ‘feeling for’ someone. Empathy, instead, is ‘feeling with’ that person, through the use of imagination.

The good thing is, according to Tim Minchin, empathy is a skill that can be developed and, as with most interpersonal skills, empathizing (at some level) comes naturally to most people.

persons hand on white window blinds

Is empathy the same for everyone, everywhere?

Just like happiness, sadness and fear are different for each person and the context they are being felt in. So is empathy. Therefore, there are many aspects of empathy which actually comes from the German word “Einfühlung” that means “feeling in”. So just like there are many ways to feel; there are also many ways to experience and express empathy.

The 3 Different Kinds of Empathy

Empathy is not that old of an idea. It is good to note that according to The Atlantic’s article “A Short History of Empathy” points out: “The term’s only been around for about a century—but over the course of its existence, its meaning has continually changed.”

We know empathy truly is important but so is the type of empathy that we experience or express.

This is why psychologists have defined three kinds of empathy listed below:

  1. Cognitive empathy is understanding someone’s thoughts and emotions, in a very rational, rather than emotional sense. It helps you in negotiations, empowering others and understanding different points of view but it may keep you disconnected from deep emotions and does not really put you in other people’s shoes.

  2. Emotional empathy is also known as emotional contagion, meaning you feel physically along with the other person. It is most beneficial in close interpersonal relationships and careers like HR and management. On the other hand, it can feel overwhelming and it is not suitable for all situations.

  3. Compassionate empathy is understanding someone’s feelings, and being moved to help. This kind of empathy considers the whole person. It is the type that we should all strive for because it is the balance between cognitive and emotional empathy. Leaders convey compassion when they are truly listening because their words and actions show that they do not only understand their team member’s perspective but they also genuinely care.
woman on bike reaching for man's hand behind her also on bike

How could I display empathy during the COVID-19 crisis?

Maintain a sense of normality

This applies to both the people you love and anyone you know who may be suffering from the virus or its consequences. It is very easy to feel isolated and lonely in times of crisis. Therefore, make an effort to show the people you love you are there. Social distancing should not mean we are distancing emotionally as well. 

Create a routine with them, learn something new together and use this time to connect at a different level than you ever had before.

Take care of yourself

It is normal to be anxious, worried and uncertain during this time. However, it is hard to take care of others if you neglect yourself. So do not forget about being self-aware and sensing when it is time to take a step back and have a break. Instead, you can:

  • Read a new book
  • Create a new exercise routine
  • Learn a new skill
  • Volunteer online
  • Reconnect with a loved one (have a video call to feel closer!)

Keep the communication

Having good communication always proves to be a challenge. But communicative challenges are critical when the obstacle you are facing is global and uncontrollable. More importantly, a lack of human connection can be more harmful to your health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure according to this scientific article

Communication is the foundation upon which we build all our human relationships, thus, maintaining it can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy, and actually improve our immune systems.

hands formed together with red heart paint

At some point, the COVID-19 pandemic will be over and life will get back to normal but what will be remembered is how we respond during this time of crisis. This is the best time to truly show what #LeadershipIsAlsoAbout. It is about expressing empathy through empowering others. It is about adapting to the situation and being solution-oriented. This is the kind of leadership we develop in AIESEC and this is the kind of leadership we need today.

And it is at times like this when empathy comes naturally. We realize it is what is keeping us going through difficult times. It is what makes people choose to go far beyond their line of duty because the feeling with one another is not a task, it is simply instinct. And we have never needed it more than we do now.

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