Three Kinds of Empathy: Feedback Requested

Posted on May 29, 2024 by Nate Regier / 0 comments
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I’m working on a larger article tentatively titled, “An empathy guide for leaders.” I’d like your feedback on something.

Empathy is emphasized quite a bit these days as a critical leadership skill. But I don’t think empathy is very well understood. So it’s difficult to agree on what we mean, what’s the purpose, or how to do it.

I’ve noticed that empathy is multifaceted. I’ve experienced at least three variations. How do these fit with your experience?

Three Kinds of Empathy

Mirror Neurons – “I feel you.”

Have you ever teared up while watching a sad movie? Do you find yourself energized when a close friend tells an exciting story? Does your heart ache when you see a child suffering? There’s a brain-based reason for this. Each of our brains has a special kind of neuron called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons detect other people’s feelings and reproduce them in our brains. It’s an automatic response to another’s emotional experience. 

Shared Emotional Experience – “I’m with you.”

A shared emotional experience means that you’ve been through something similar to another person and have a sense of what it feels like. Maybe you lost a loved one to cancer and now your friend is going through something similar. You have a special connection with them because you can relate to their feelings. Is your employee struggling to keep up in her new role? I bet you’ve been there before and have a sense of what that feels like. At least you know how you felt when you were just starting a new job.

Cognitive Perspective-Taking – “I get you.”

Cognitive perspective-taking uses your head, not your heart. It’s about understanding another person’s point of view. It’s about “knowing” what they are going through, not necessarily feeling it. Famous hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, uses cognitive perspective-taking to “put himself in the shoes of the hostage taker,” becoming relatable and making a connection. Here’s a sample of Chris Voss’ Master Class on tactical empathy. Behavioral communication models like PCM teach people how to understand how different personality types perceive the world and are motivated. This helps people anticipate and adapt accordingly.

I submit that all three types of empathy are important and have a positive purpose. Each one can be developed within us.

But there’s a lot more to explore.

Can Empathy Be Bad?

Questions I will explore in my longer article will include:

  • What are the pros and cons of each type of empathy?
  • How do people develop each type of empathy?
  • Can empathy be abused? How do we know?

I’d love your contribution to my longer article. Do you resonate with anything in this post? What’s your experience with empathy? What questions do you have? What else are you curious about? I welcome your comment here or feel free to email me at

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