One of your colleagues is visibly upset. They’re not sharing much, but you can sense something’s off. You want to help but are unsure how to approach the situation.
This is where cognitive empathy comes in. Cognitive empathy allows you to evaluate others’ behavior and react appropriately.
When your colleague displays signs of personal distress, you’ll consider the situation and compare their behavior to your own experiences to evaluate the next best steps. Were they upset before their one-on-one with their manager? Did they mention anything upsetting going on in their personal life yesterday?
Exercising this skill at work makes you a better leader, coworker, and friend. You’ll better understand people’s experiences to treat them with genuine care.
What’s cognitive empathy?
Cognitive empathy, also known as empathic accuracy or perspective-taking, is a type of empathy that allows you to rationally understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, and perspective. You’re aware of certain behaviors tied to different emotions and intuitive enough to assess the situation for clues regarding the person’s behavior.
This isn’t something you’re born with — cognitive empathy can be learned as you interact with others and develop emotional intelligence. The more knowledge you have about situational behavior, the better — and quicker — you’ll recognize what’s happening when people act stressed, angry, excited, etc.
Empathetic understanding is becoming an increasingly crucial workplace skill. Soon, millennials will make up 75% of the U.S. workforce — and the majority of millennials say empathetic leadership directly impacts their workplace satisfaction.
Cognitive empathy also allows coworkers to build stronger relationships with teammates. You navigate social interactions better and build a sense of belonging when you can relate to others’ experiences and vice versa.
Cognitive empathy versus emotional empathy
Different types of empathy exist, including emotional and cognitive.
Emotional empathy, also known as affective empathy, allows you to share an emotional experience with others — to feel what they feel. Then, you can choose to respond accordingly. If your coworker’s feeling frustrated about a bad performance review, you’ll feel frustrated too and console them in a way you’d likely want to be comforted.
Cognitive empathy means rationally understanding someone’s perspective without sharing their emotional experience. You’ll recognize your coworker just exited a performance review and is showing signs of frustration and connect the dots to respond accordingly.
Here are a few more differences:
Understanding versus feeling
Cognitive empathy involves using critical thinking to understand another person’s emotions and thoughts, while emotional empathy is feeling the same emotions as the other person.
For example, if you’re a team lead trying to resolve a conflict between two team members, you can use cognitive empathy to mediate. You’ll understand why each person’s reacting how they are — even though you’re not feeling the same way or intimately involved in the situation — and can address their concerns in turn.
If you rely on emotional empathy, you might become too emotionally invested in the situation to recommend a solution. In this case, cognitive empathy also protects your mental health as you’re not experiencing the emotional weight of a situation.
Objective versus subjective
Cognitive empathy allows for a more objective perspective, while emotional empathy is more subjective. This is because cognitive empathy is more detached — you recognize what’s going on but aren’t emotionally invested in the situation.
When you’re resolving that team conflict, you can remain objective and give a less biased perspective on the case if practicing cognitive, not emotional, empathy.
Solving problems versus offering comfort
Cognitive empathy doesn’t directly affect your emotions, allowing for more rational, calm decision-making. But because emotional empathy triggers personal sentiments and experiences, you’ll provide better comfort and solace to struggling individuals.
Sometimes this is necessary — solutions aren’t always the answer. For example, if a coworker’s struggling with losing a loved one, there’s no problem to solve. They likely need comfort.
Alternatively, if a coworker gets worked up and emotionally engaged during a stressful situation at work, they might not be able to offer constructive solutions. In these cases, an emotional response is appropriate as you prioritize a person’s well-being over rationalizing a solution.
The benefits of combining cognitive and emotional empathy
Because cognitive and emotional empathy are valuable in different situations, it’s best to develop both. Intellectually knowing how people feel isn’t the same as feeling it, so combining the two offers a more well-rounded perspective on others’ experiences.
Striking the perfect balance offers the following benefits:
Improves coworker relationships: When you use both cognitive and emotional empathy to evaluate your coworkers’ perspectives, you gain a richer understanding of what they’re going through and can react accordingly.
This helps you build closeness with coworkers, which can improve team collaboration and employee satisfaction. Everyone can feel safe and comfortable sharing their ideas and working with those they relate to.
Offers an advantage in negotiation: Developing these empathy types lets you anticipate the other party’s perspective to get an edge in negotiations. You’ll combine situational knowledge (they arrived late and seem flustered) with emotional awareness (they’re nervous and excited) to determine how you’d like to approach the deal.
Use this understanding to find common ground and reach an advantageous solution for all.
Enhances emotional intelligence: Research shows that emotional intelligence helps employees get promoted and lead more effectively. And emotional intelligence relies on rationally understanding your emotions. Develop this skill by first developing cognitive and emotional empathy.
The science behind empathy
Ever wonder why someone crying makes you tear up, or why a person’s closed-off body language makes you cross your arms?
This is the mirroring effect, and it helps you empathize with others.
Social neuroscience researchers found that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain playing a role in decision-making and social behavior, activates mirror neurons, a brain cell type that allows you to “mirror” another person’s experience in your brain. Scientists believe these neurons help you empathize with others, since they allow you to feel others’ emotions and experiences.
This trait is crucial to the human race — our survival depended on helping each other, and empathy encouraged us to care for our young and form communities.
Tips for developing cognitive empathy
Emotional empathy tends to come more naturally to humans, while cognitive empathy requires further intellect. Evaluate situations for clues and reflect on your emotional states to recognize them in others — even when you don’t feel the same way.
Here’s how to improve cognitive empathy to better understand others’ feelings:
Be aware of nonverbal communication: Body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions reveal a lot about what someone thinks and feels. Pay attention to these nonverbal cues to understand your colleagues’ thoughts and emotions. If a coworker avoids eye contact, they may feel uncomfortable or intimidated.
Be open to learning: The more perspectives you understand, the more well-rounded your cognitive-empathy education. Learn about ways other cultures or individuals experience situations and show emotions to connect them to your own.
If a teammate had a drastically different childhood than you, for example, actively listen to absorb why they react to certain situations in a particular way to better understand them.
Separate yourself from your bias: Cognitive biases can sway your understanding of a person’s perspective. These are assumptions you make based on personal experiences and stubborn opinions. The first step to unlearning them is recognizing them, then forcing yourself to consider another point of view.
Factors that get in the way of empathy
Developing cognitive empathy can be challenging, so we’ve flagged some potential barriers that may impede your learning process:
How you were raised: Personal experiences, like your upbringing, shape your perception of the world and ability to empathize with others. If you were raised in an environment where your emotions weren’t validated or empathy wasn’t modeled, for example, empathizing could be difficult.
You might not even recognize that you should validate how a person feels when they share their emotions with you.
The treatment you received when you had emotional needs: If you’ve had negative experiences in the past where your emotional needs weren’t met, you might not know how to meet others’. You might even unconsciously meet others’ needs as yours were — with negativity or dismissal.
What you were taught about emotions: Society and culture shape your understanding of emotions and empathy. If you were taught to suppress or ignore your emotions or to see certain ones as weak, you might subconsciously carry this sentiment. You might find it difficult to express emotions you think of as weak or acknowledge them in others.
Enjoy deeper relationships
Every interaction is an opportunity to learn. If you pay attention, you’ll know more about the emotional and intellectual state of those around you — and better understand yourself.
Developing cognitive empathy lets you dive deeper into these interactions. Not only can you categorize certain situations — this coworker just had a bad performance review, that one is excited about their upcoming wedding — but you can rationally tie others’ emotional states to your own to connect deeper.
Work to improve your understanding of those around you and enjoy a life filled with rich human connections.