How do I understand empathy

Learning empathy: test, meaning, tips, benefits

Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand and understand the thoughts, emotions, motives and personality traits of another person. Whereby recognizing and understanding is only the first part. Empathy also includes the willingness to get involved, to react appropriately and to anticipate reactions to it. It is a kind of "anticipatory emotional response". Without a certain degree of empathy (or: "empathy") a functioning cooperation in professional life is almost impossible. Even more: empathy is an essential career factor. A study led by the Bonn psychology professor Gerhard Blickle comes to the result: Those who can empathize well with the feelings of others advance faster in their job ...

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

Definition: what does empathy mean?

Empathetic people can empathize with other people, adjust to their counterparts, respond to them accurately and deal with them - sensitively. This is made possible, among other things, by so-called mirror neurons. Incidentally, that does not mean taking over the emotional life and positions of the other. But we can better understand and understand both. The Duden names as frequently used synonyms for empathy, for example: sympathy, empathy, sensitivity, compassion, sensitivity, understanding or tenderness. Scientists today are convinced that empathy is a key factor for career and success.

What colleagues, superiors, customers, employees or business partners feel and think or what their intentions are is rarely immediately transparent. But if you can fathom this more quickly, you not only have an advantage. It makes these people more personable right away. They understand our backgrounds and motivations. They seem to know each other well, ensure harmony. Or as it is called colloquially: “The chemistry is right”. However, the prerequisite for empathy is not only a healthy understanding of people, but also a healthy self-perception:

The more open you are to your own emotions and the better you understand yourself, the better you can interpret and deal with the feelings of others.

The 4 pillars of empathy

According to the definition, this competence is made up of four pillars.

1. Perception

➠ Key question: How is the other?
➠ Facets: gestures, facial expressions, body language, voice, statements, noticeable emotions

2. Understanding

➠ Key question: Why is he / she feeling like this?
➠ Facets: causes, motives, circumstances

3. Response

➠ Key question: How do I react to it?
➠ Facets: consideration, words, action, compassion, acceptance

4. Anticipation

➠ Key question: How will the other person react to me?
➠ Facets: Emotional, rational

Depending on the point of view, scientists once again differentiate between empathy and compassion: While empathy primarily enables an appropriate reaction in the sense of the ability to resonate, compassion is more of a kind of “pity” in the face of the problems of others. But that carries the risk of emotional exhaustion. In fact, empathy has many components and facets. It is one of the strongest qualities among the so-called soft skills, i.e. the “soft” competencies of a person.

The 3 types of empathy

However, within empathy, three different types and characteristics are often distinguished:

  • Affective empathy
    This is the ability to instinctively and automatically (affectively) empathize with other people and to empathize with them or to react appropriately to their feelings.
  • The cognitive empathy
    The cognitive empathy enables one to recognize the emotions and to understand the emotional world of another. But only through so-called emotional empathy is it possible to feel the moods yourself.
  • The social empathy
    This form in turn describes the ability to adapt to people of different origins, cultures, age groups as well as different temperaments and characters.

All of these types of empathy can help to avoid conflicts and their escalation at an early stage or to find better solutions together. Empathy helps to literally bring other people "on board" and thus to create a working environment in which real teamwork, consensus and mutual trust are only possible.

Empathy means:
See with each other's eyes.
Hear with each other's ears.
To feel with the other's heart.

Empathy test: how empathic are you?

Empathy makes you sympathetic. So it is hardly surprising that many people like to attribute this quality to themselves or claim to be an empathic person. But is that really you? Empathy is similar to astrology: Most descriptions are so diverse and abstract that some of them always apply to us. So many easily fall victim to the Barnum Effect. That means: we believe what we want to believe.

To help you with a realistic self-assessment, we have developed a compact empathy test. The self-test is not about scientific evidence, but about improving your self-image, consolidating it or, if necessary, correcting it.

Take a few minutes to read the following statements carefully and honestly decide which of them you agree with. Add up the number of consents. The point is not to get as many points as possible, but to receive an honest assessment.

  • I immediately notice the mood in a room.
  • When someone cries, I get very upset and sad too.
  • I also understand what is just said between the lines.
  • When there is a chance, I always try to help others.
  • I try to please others as best I can to avoid conflict situations.
  • Another person's joy is good for me and makes me smile.
  • If there is a dispute, I try to remain neutral and find a common solution.
  • I am very good at keeping a secret to myself because I know how important it is to others.
  • It burdens me when people around me are doing badly or when they are treated unfairly.
  • I can understand what makes other people particularly troubled.
  • I notice changes in body language and I can interpret them.
  • I know my wishes and goals, but I also very clearly perceive the needs of others.
  • Many people around me trust me.
  • I notice immediately when someone tries to lie to me.
  • Friends and colleagues appreciate that I am a good listener.

Evaluation of the empathy test

Did you remember how often you consented? The number will give you your personal result:

E-test: how empathic is your counterpart?

To find out how empathic his counterpart is, Adam Galinsky, who has been a professor at the renowned Kellogg of Management for many years, developed the so-called E-Test. Actually, it is more of a kind of party game that looks completely harmless, but can tell you a lot about the psyche of the person you are talking to: ask the person you are talking to draw an "E" on your forehead. Then look at the way around the person has drawn the E: Is the person opposite you painting the “E” so that he or she can read the letter in his mind's eye? Or does the person opposite you paint the "E" mirror-inverted so that you can read it the right way round? For social psychologists, this reveals a lot about whether someone has the ability to see the world from another point of view. Or whether the person is only interested in himself or even keeps an eye on such a harmless test that others are watching, reading along, playing along (see video).

Learning empathy: this is how you become more empathic

Quite a few complain of a lack of empathy in professional life. Instead of empathy, the elbow mentality prevails there. Empathy in dealing with people is not only important, but can also be learned - as is social skills. The first and most important step to do this is self-reflection. The second: the willingness to work on yourself. The empathy often improves with increasing age (this does not mean the proverbial gentleness of old age), because one can fall back on a growing wealth of experience.

But it can also be done earlier. Here are a few tips on how to learn more empathy:

  • Listen to.
    Active listening is a basic requirement for empathy. It's not just about silence and listening. Good listeners are also always good questioners: They inquire if they have not understood something. And repeat in their own words what they have understood. The point is not to chew what has been said, but to really understand the other person, to grasp his emotions, his motives. That is what conveys appreciation.
  • Be open.
    Only when you approach others with an open mind will you be able to build relationships. Even in colleagues who you find difficult, you can see positive traits at second glance. You'll only see these if you don't stick to a pre-made picture.
  • Take your time.
    Empathy doesn't come overnight. It takes time to get to know yourself, other personalities and interpersonal emotions better. Anyone who has only maintained superficial contacts for a long time should take the necessary time to implement empathic thinking and acting step by step. For professional relationships, for example, it is helpful to seek informal exchange at the beginning. This can be a conversation over coffee, a lunch break or a beer after work. In these situations, many colleagues open up and show more emotions.
  • Watch you.
    Even those who observe their fellow human beings develop a better understanding of them. What are their habits? How do you work? How do they react in certain situations or to different triggers? For example, if you recognize that your office neighbor needs a coffee first thing in the morning and would like to read his e-mails in peace, you can take it into account instead of besieging him directly.
  • Show interest.
    What is important to your colleagues? What is it that excites you? Those who are interested in their colleagues can more easily understand the underlying emotions. Most people enjoy talking about hobbies and passions. Listen carefully and notice the feelings associated with each topic.
  • Question you.
    Conflicts often arise from misunderstandings. Instead, try to read between the lines, questioning and understanding motives. Often the actual needs remain unspoken. A helpful method for this is the so-called 4-ear model by Friedemann Schulz von Thun. Each statement is viewed from four sides - and thus understood much better.
  • Mirror your counterpart.
    Use Robert de Niro's trick: The US actor once said that he imitated the body language of his counterpart in order to understand them better. Those who subtly synchronize the gestures and facial expressions of their counterpart can better empathize with them. This creates an emotional match between two people.
  • Express understanding.
    Anyone who believes that the other person really understands them opens up. So if, for example, a colleague tells you about an experience and you say: “I can understand that very well”, a bond arises (of course only if this is not an empty phrase). The other person not only immediately feels more comfortable in your presence - you will also gain more empathy over time.

Opposite empathy: Too much of a good thing?

Scientists like psychologist Paul Bloom believe that the more similar a person is to us, the more we feel empathy. Conversely, however, this also means: the more different we are, the less empathy we feel for one another. An enormous danger to strangers and those who think differently. And indeed: There is also a dark side to the otherwise honest and morally highly valued competence - the opposite of empathy, so to speak.

Think, for example, of TV pictures of bloody confrontations, child abuse, racism or oppression. Some of the cruelty that is portrayed there is difficult to bear. We sympathize with the victims and feel their suffering. But our empathic reaction to this is not differentiated mildness, but one-sided anger, vindictiveness, a cry for lynching. The empathy in us then does not contribute to greater understanding and clarification of the conflict. Rather, the strong feelings mutate into fire accelerators and (empathic) partisanship.

Thiemo Breyer, philosopher and professor at the University of Cologne, for example, is convinced that empathy can polarize. The result: the conflict is fueled even more, the fronts harden. One wishes the perpetrator the same, if not worse, cruelty against the neck. Thought through to the end, this means that only empathy enables sadism: Without empathy, the sadist would not know how to torment his victim the most.

So we should realize that the ability to empathize with others does not automatically lead to us doing the right thing. Conversely, a lack of empathy can - in places - lead to more prudence and objectivity. There is even a technical term for the direct opposite of empathy: Ekpathie. This does not mean that someone like that has no empathy or is indifferent to their environment. Rather, Ekpathie describes a process. To be disapproving means that at a certain point you reverse the process of empathizing - into a kind of “feeling out”. Ultimately, Ekpathie serves pure self-protection.

Advantages and disadvantages of empathy

The ability to vibrate emotionally has many advantages that favor not only private but also professional success. Anyone who can empathize with their counterparts perceives worries and hardships, but of course also feelings such as joy and excitement.

The benefits of empathy

For employees

  • Networking: Empathy is the basis for stable relationships. This helps enormously with networking: empathy makes it easier to deal with strangers and new colleagues.
  • Ability to work in a team: In a team, empathy leads to greater understanding and greater willingness to help one another. Conflicts are also resolved faster.

For executives

  • Core competency: Empathy is a prerequisite for managerial competence in superiors.
  • Conflict resolution: Thanks to empathy, conflicts are recognized at an early stage and the real causes are resolved constructively. Not just the symptoms.
  • Motivation: Empathetic managers find it easier to motivate their employees. Because of this ability, they are perceived more sympathetically.

Here, too, it is like everything: the dose makes the poison. Too much empathy and compassion can become a problem. In private and at work. The latter threatens veritable disadvantages ...

The disadvantages of empathy

For employees

  • Demarcation: Excessive empathy can become a burden. Affected people focus too much on the feelings of others and find it difficult to say no. Consequence: You reach your limit faster.
  • Good faith: Those who are particularly empathetic are more likely to fall for actors and exploiters. Such people are prone to manipulation. The result: revision.

For executives

  • Leadership weakness: Superiors who are too empathetic can quickly find themselves on the defensive: They have to implement unpopular decisions from above, but are reluctant to do so. In the worst case, they shine with absenteeism.

Empathy Psychology: Studies on Empathy

You've already learned a lot about empathy. Nevertheless, we do not want to withhold the following knowledge and facts from psychology on the subject that are worth knowing:

  • Novels improve empathy.
    Those who read novels regularly not only improve their vocabulary, but also increase their ability to empathize. This is evident from studies carried out by Raymond Mar. What is remarkable about this is that the scientists found the opposite effect among readers of non-fiction books.
  • Poverty promotes empathy.
    Sad but true: a person's socio-economic status also affects their ability to empathize. This is what the British psychologist Antony S. R. Manstead of Cardiff University found out. His studies found that poorer people make eye contact more quickly and are more likely to reach out to others.Richer people were more closed. The explanation: Those who have little to live with are more dependent on the help of others. Rich people, on the other hand, would only show empathy in the form of charity if there was an appropriate public, for example at a fundraising gala.
  • Speech melody reveals empathy.
    According to a study by Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of the University of Southern California, the way a speaker emphasizes his sentences betrays his empathy. For example, those who modulated their pronunciation particularly clearly were also particularly empathetic.
  • Empathy lowers stress.
    According to research by Sarina Rodrigues from Oregon State University, empathetic people can cope better with stress. A special gene is responsible for this, which not only makes those affected more empathetic, but also helps them to block out disturbing impressions.
  • Synesthetes are more empathetic.
    Synesthesia - i.e. the ability to perceive a sensory stimulus several times and, for example, to assign a color to a taste - is also a veritable indicator of high levels of empathy. Michael Banissy and Jamie Ward from University College London found this out in their studies. This coincides with studies by Wen Zhou and Denise Chen from Rice University in Houston, according to which empathetic people have a particularly well-developed olfactory memory. By the way, around four percent of people in Germany are synaesthetes.

What other readers have read about it

[Photo credit:]

★★★★★ Rating: 4.9 / 5 - 7720 ratings.
October 25, 2020Author: Jochen Mai

Jochen Mai is the founder and editor-in-chief of the career bible. The author of several books lectures at the TH Köln and is a sought-after keynote speaker, coach and consultant.

Continue to the home page