Five methods to teach and promote empathy

After my last blog on empathy I reflected on some of my other relationships and realized I have a friend I know so well that in most cases I can correctly tell what she’s thinking and how she’s feeling. So if missing empathy is one’s inability to determine another individual's feelings – does that mean that I’m super empathetic? Or is there more to it?


Experts on the topic, such as Paul Ekman (the author of “Telling Lies” and the inspiration behind the TV series “Lie to Me”) and Daniel Goleman (author of “Working with Emotional Intelligence” et al.) distinguish between 3 different kinds of empathy:


Cognitive Empathy means we understand how the other person thinks; we see their point of view. This makes for good debaters, sales people and negotiators. But such people can lack compassion - they get to see how you see it, but don't care. Psychologists speak of the "Dark Triad": narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths.


Emotional Empathy refers to someone who feels the emotions of the person they’re with. This creates rapport, and entails the brain's mirror neuron system, which activates our own circuits, emotions, movements and intentions we see in the other person. This lets us feel with, but not necessarily feel for, the other person.


Compassionate Empathy means we not only understand how the person sees things and feels in the moment, but also want to help them if we sense the need.


Goleman talks extensively in Working with Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 2000) about empathy: Partners who are very empathetic actually mimic each others’ physiologies, which is called entrainment (pg. 136) and which happens in as little as 1/50 seconds. And he reports that empathetic responses seem stronger when negative emotions are involved. It’s easier to pull each other down than to lift each other up.


As stated before, emotional empathy is an innate (amygdala) capability that needs to be developed. This development depends to a large degree on motivation. More specifically, in the Handbook of Conflict Resolution (Jossey-Bass, 2000) Deutsch (pg. 58) and Sandy and Cochran (pg. 325) mention 5 methods to teach and promote empathy:

  • Role Playing
  • Role Exchanging or Role Reversal
  • Guided Imagination (i.e. imagination and adoption of relevant characteristics)
  • Explicit Modeling
  • Induction (i.e. giving explanations that appeal to other motivating forces and desires)

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