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The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, and Compassionate

In our last post we talked about the importance for those in ministry to possess the qualities of empathy and what those qualities look like. In this article, we’re going to cover the different kinds of empathy so you can choose what is appropriate for different relationships and situations.

The thing is, not all empathy looks and feels the same; just like not all sadness, happiness, or fear is the same. Empathy has different facets. Empathy comes from a German word, Einfühlung, meaning “feeling in.” And just as there are many ways to feel; there are multiple ways to experience empathy.

The Three Types of Empathy Psychologists Have Defined

As we noted in our previous article empathy is an important if not vital skill for the minister to possess. And the type of empathy that you express matters as well. Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate empathy all manifest in different ways.

COGNITIVE EMPATHY definition: “Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking” is how Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of the book Emotional Intelligence, defines cognitive empathy.

What it’s concerned with: Thought, understanding, intellect.

Benefits: Helps in negotiations, motivating other people, understanding diverse viewpoints, and for leading meetings.

 Pitfalls: Can be disconnected from or ignore deep emotions; doesn’t put you in another’s shoes in a felt sense.

Cognitive Empathy means you know and understand another’s problem on an intellectual level without taking on their emotions as your own. Cognitive empathy allows you to respond to another person’s emotions in terms of logic more than feelings. This type of empathy can be a huge asset in circumstances where you need to “get inside another person’s head” or interact with tact and understanding. Cognitive empathy can be particularly useful in church office situations such as negotiations, motivating staff, resolving conflict, and understanding diverse points of view.

Unfortunately, those who respond with Cognitive Empathy can risk seeming cold or detached.

EMOTIONAL EMPATHY definition: “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” – Daniel Goleman

What it’s concerned with: feelings, physical sensation.

Benefits: Helps in close interpersonal relationships and careers like ministry, coaching, marketing, management and human resources.

Pitfalls: Can be overwhelming, or inappropriate in certain circumstances.

Emotional Empathy, just like is sounds, involves directly feeling the emotions that another person is feeling and to walk in their shoes figuratively. People who utilize emotional empathy effectively are often natural caregivers, pastors, and compassionate parents, friends and leaders. On the flip side, emotional empathy can take a toll on a person’s emotional well-being. Emotional empathy becomes especially problematic when you focus on another person’s burdens and challenges more than your own.

COMPASSIONATE EMPATHY definition: “With this kind of empathy we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.” – Daniel Goleman

What it’s concerned with: Intellect, emotion, and action.

Benefits: Considers the whole person.

Pitfalls: Few—this is the type of empathy that we’re usually striving for.

Compassionate Empathy strikes a balance between Cognitive and Emotional Empathy. Compassionate Empathy is the middle ground that honors the natural connection between the brain and the heart by considering both the felt senses and intellectual situation of another person. This type of empathy goes beyond merely understanding others and sharing their feelings. It moves us to act; to help wherever we can. Because it takes into consideration the whole person, Compassionate Empathy is the most appropriate and helpful empathetic response the majority of the time.

Any type of empathy requires emotional intelligence and takes some practice—just like any other skill or learned behavior. Any pastor or minister who empathizes effectively will tell you that it is absolutely worth the time and effort.



Posted on August 10, 2021

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5