Three Kinds of Empathy: Cognitive, Emotional, Compassionate

Being cool in crisis seems essential for our being able to think clearly. But what if keeping cool makes you too cold to care? In other words, must we sacrifice empathy to stay calm? That’s the dilemma facing those who are preparing top teams to handle the next Katrina-like catastrophe we might face. Which gets me to Paul Ekman, a world expert on emotions and our ability to read and respond to them in others. Paul and I had a long conversation recently, in which he described three very different ways to sense another person’s feelings.

The first is “cognitive empathy,” simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking, this kind of empathy can help in, say, a negotiation or in motivating people. A study at the University of Birmingham found, for example, that managers who are good at perspective-taking were able to move workers to give their best efforts.

But there can be a dark side to this sort of empathy – in fact, those who fall within the “Dark Triad” – narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths (see Chapter 8 in Social Intelligence) – can be talented in this regard, while having no sympathy whatever for their victims. As Paul told me, a torturer needs this ability, if only to better calibrate his cruelty – and talented political operatives no doubt have this ability in abundance.

Katrina’s devastation, we all saw, was amplified enormously by the lackadaisical response from the very agencies that were supposed to manage the emergency. As we all witnessed, leaders at the highest levels were weirdly detached, despite the abundant evidence on our TV screens that the disaster’s victims were doubly victimized by the indifference to their suffering.

Certainly empathy qualifies as one critical measure of the right leader in a crisis, along with being cool under pressure. But exactly what kind of empathy should we look for? When it comes to the right leader for a crisis, cognitive empathy alone seems insufficient . Then, Paul told me, there’s “emotional empathy,” – when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This emotional contagion, social neuroscience tells us, depends in large part on the mirror neuron system (see Chapter Three in Social Intelligence). Emotional empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world, a plus in any of a wide range of callings, from sales to nursing – let alone for any parent or lover.

One downside of emotional empathy occurs when people lack the ability to manage their own distressing emotions can be seen in the psychological exhaustion that leads to burnout. The purposeful detachment cultivated by those in medicine offers one way to inoculate against burnout. But the danger arises when detachment leads to indifference, rather than to well-calibrated caring.

Finally, there’s what Paul calls “compassionate empathy,” which I’ve written about using the term “empathic concern” (see Chapter Six in Social Intelligence). 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.

Paul told me about his daughter, who works as a social worker in a large city hospital. In her situation, he said, she can’t afford to let emotional empathy overwhelm her. “My daughter’s clients don’t want her to cry when they’re crying,” as he put it. “They want her to help them figure out what to do now – how to arrange a funeral, how to deal with the loss of a child.” Empathic concern was the vital ingredient missing in the top-level response to Hurricane Katrina.

18 thoughts on “Three Kinds of Empathy: Cognitive, Emotional, Compassionate

  1. With regards to this issue, I still feel that there are certain situations in our life when we have to really detached ourselves emotionally in order to think properly. No doubt we ought to have more empathy especially dealing with issues that concern people (like the Katrina incident), however we can’t deny the fact that emotions can be a very difficult ‘thing’ to control and regulate especially when you begin to feel so much for an incident/the people. Hence before one starts to reach the state of burnout as in the case of emotional empathy, he/she should detach him/herself from his/her emotions else his/her emotions will become a distraction to rational thinking.

    This kind of “empathy shut-down” (as we may call it) is only temporary to allow us to formulate efficient solutions to a problem. Once we have at least the framework of our solution in mind, we can then add in the ‘flesh’ of the problem in the form of empathy and emotions.

    Hope this can serve as an alternative view to the situation.


  2. Daniel, I’m studying “bussines and administration” in “Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile”
    I Love the psicologhy and i have read things about you. Im glad to read your blog and i hope to learn more about you.



    PS: Sorry for my english

  3. The idea that the heart and the head cannot work together in tandem effectively is a misconception. The most effective leaders: teachers, pastors, physicians, counselors, salesmen (if you will) cognitively relate to a situation, while investing themselves emotionally. The parameters of showing empathy are best maintained, I think, by reminding myself that, ultimately, it is not about me. Emotional detachment when faced with suffering can be symptomatic of either immaturity in the ability to receive and/or express feeling, or a lack of intellectual appreciation of the importance of investing in those outside of our circles. We can feel and connect with the heart, while strategizing ways to help. Knowing we have done our best in both areas can bring the closure needed to prevent emotional enmeshment and burnout.

  4. Hello Daniel,

    Great to connect with you this way, even if it *is* a form of communication that misses out on a lot of the contextual cues 🙂

    I am about one-third of the way through “Social Intelligence” and I am brimming with questions.

    How can one avoid the emotional burnout of feeling along with others?

    It seems that compassionate empathy as described in your blog would require one to stay strong and focused enough to deal with a situation and would also include the ability to detect insincerity.

    In your experience, does it turn out that the compassionate empathetic person will have a built-in protection from being manipulated — even from those who fall under the categories of the dark triad? If so, why does it appear that some compassionate people are prone to becoming repeat targets for narcissists, Machiavellians and even psychopaths. Is it perhaps that what appears to be compassion in these “targets” is actually more of a projection? A response to a mis-read signal based on what the seemingly empathetic target wants to believe rather than on the true message? Or perhaps too much energy is going in the direction of over-emotional empathy rather than true compassion?

    For instance, if you pair an emotional empathetic person with a narcissist. Is there a predictable pattern? I suspect there is because in spite of their predisposition to use others as a source of gratification, narcissists really are experiencing pain which the empathetic person will very likely feel. Is there a mixed narcissistic signal that the empathetic person tries (with confusion) to respond to? Part genuine and part manipulative?

    How to deal with this without succumbing to being used and exhausted? I’m guessing that the concept of compassionate empathy addresses this but a scan of your book index suggests to me that it’s one of the topics not yet fully explored. I think some hints are in your “Destructive Emotions” book, which I read several years ago and now want to read again.

    Perhaps all the puzzle pieces are there and just need to be put together and I will stay tuned to your webpages to find out.

    thanks — there is much to be encouraged about!

  5. daniel, you’re cool man. this thing helped me out on my assignments and it was just awesome and great. i wish i will be like you someday. im “just” a kid with many dreams. hmmm..

  6. I’d really appreciate a reference in the psychology literature of such differentiation of different aspects of empathy. Did Dr. Ekman elaborate this distinction in any published article?

    Thanks for any info on this.

  7. Hello Daniel!
    have you child’s emotional intelligence. egoizm and emotional 1, 3, 7. 13, 17 yaer.
    p.s sorry for my english

  8. Hi ,
    I liked the three different distinctions for empathy.
    I work in the field of Conflict Resolution. More and more I have become interested in how to help prevent destructive conflict and increase individuals/groups capacity to engage in Constructive conflict,rather than simply dealing with the aftermath.
    To date what I have found most effective is supporting the person/team to not jump straight to a reaction but to engage in self reflection, and be prepared to look at why they respond the way they do and the effect these responses have on the other person/team. Then to identify the type of response that would have given the result they wanted,and a chance to practice this new way of responding.

    What I’d really like to find out more about is the energetic wave I see people geting caught on in an instant reaction,and how it seems almost impossible for them to come back once they are caught on this wave.
    If you could point me to anybody who has written anything about this I would be very gratefull.


  10. If one were to accept the definitions of the three forms of empathy namely Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate highlighted in this article, the question remains, if these are talents or skills? If they are skills, they can be acquired through reading and learning, but if they are talents, then is the outcome any different by just being aware of them? Thoughts?

  11. I just wonder how you can stop empathy because it seems to get to extrime. I catch ppl’s emotions, thoughts and body conditions the way too often and I can’t detach for some reason. It doesn’t happen at will and I wasn’t born with this ability. Is there a simple way to stop it? Do you have any articles about this?

  12. I am an empath and I constantly battered for being empathic esp when I dont know where its coming from and why. this sort of batterment has led me such deep depressions that I tried to commit suicide several times and when I come out of it only to be told that I am feeling sorry for myself and that I am nothing but a piece of shit, I shit you not! anybody want to comment on that I would appreciate it

  13. just cutting off your emotions is not always an optiion esp if you do not know how to put up boundries “like regualer people” so dont judge us too harshly

  14. OK. I have a question. Which would it fall under in relation to what someone sees on the TV. This will sounds stupid and quite sad, but i have a habit of growing very attached to certain characters on TV that have particularly distressing storylines.

    I feel silly writing it down to be honest, but sometimes I get so wrapped up in it that I actually begin to feel nervous or angry or completely depressive for them.

    Silly really, but I find it very difficult not to let it affect me that way.

    Is this one of the three types of empathy?


  15. Ellie,

    Your post just cought my attention, and to tell you the truth, I don’t think it’s silly at all that you feel with TV characters. This notion I think was mentioned in Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence. That should be insightful if you don’t have the book already. To me this is understandable, and could be seen as oppurtunity to practice compassion. That’s just me anyway. tc



  16. What really brought me here at first was the fact that Fox Broadcasting are making a new series inspired by Paul Ekman. Fox’s website describes that upcoming series as “a drama series inspired by a real-life specialist who can read clues embedded in the human face, body, and voice to expose the truth in criminal investigations.” (Taken from

    Here’s a promo vid of the series:

    I think, “cool!” And what better place to post something about this than here? (Hmm, I wonder how Professor Ekman feels about this program.) If you have time Dr. Goleman, you may want to comment on how you feel about this :D?

    Best regards


    PS If you didn’t know already about this I hope this would be a nice surprise. 🙂

  17. Reading Social Intelligence at the moment. I really like the the scientific approach to analyzing our actions. I also like the distinction between the high and low roads.

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