The dictionary defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Since the term empathy was first used in the 1880s by German psychologist Theodore Lipps, researchers and psychologists have worked to define what empathy is and explain the vital role empathy plays in being human.

Descriptions of Empathy

As science worked to understand empathy as a crucial human skill, researchers developed expanded definitions of empathy. Each description helps explain not only what empathy is, but how it relates to being human. 

Examples include:

  • Theodore Lipps’ word empathy translates literally as “in-feeling.”
  • A paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine describes empathy as vicariously sharing another person’s experience while still maintaining an objective view.
  • The Journal of The American Medical Association describes empathy as a balanced curiosity that leads to a better understanding of another human being.
  • Recently, Psychology Today explained empathy as the ability to recognize, understand, and share someone else’s thoughts and feelings or an animal or fictional character’s thoughts and feelings.  

Psychologists also state that developing empathy is necessary for forming relationships and acting compassionately.  To function in life fully, people need empathy toward others.

Types of Empathy

Researchers at Lesley University explain how empathy speaks to the human experience by categorizing different types of empathy and how they relate to interpersonal communication.

Emotional empathy includes:

  • Feeling the same emotion as another person
  • Personal distress 
  • Feeling compassion

Empathy begins when one person recognizes and shares the emotion another person is feeling. The first person then feels personal distress as a response to the other person’s situation.  This response creates a feeling of compassion or caring in the first person.  Empathy helps people experience how someone else is feeling and respond in a way that builds a connection.

Cognitive empathy includes:

  • Perceiving
  • Understanding

Psychologists explain cognitive empathy as the next step beyond emotional empathy.  They describe cognitive empathy as a deeper experience where one person grasps how another person feels and thinks.  Cognitive empathy is learned through human contact, and people can work to improve this skill.

Empathy and Relationships

There are many categories of human relationships. Strangers you briefly interact with, acquaintances, casual friends, coworkers, close friends, and family are all ways you connect with other people.  The level of empathy you feel for a person helps determine which category they belong to in your life. 

Empathy allows you to develop a rapport with others.  Rapport makes another person feel that you understand them because your words and actions:

  • Mimic their emotions
  • Show that you see a problem or issue through their perspective
  • Understand and respect their point of view

Empathy allows humans to interact and fills the need for companionship.  Empathy doesn’t always mean you agree with another person, but it shows them that you understand why they feel that way. 

Imagine a world without empathy.  If no one understood how anyone else felt, people would continuously be arguing, fighting, and destroying each other because they would have no shared connection.  Arguments and wars start when two people or sides don’t understand or respect each other. Empathy allows humans to work, share, and live together.

Speaking Empathy

Being human means speaking or using the language of empathy to communicate with others. Scientists have mapped parts of the human brain that directly relate to emotions and connections with others. Biologically, the brain causes people to:

  • Identify another person’s experience as an emotion
  • Stimulate that emotion within themselves
  • Experience a first-hand representation of the other person’s situation

Empathy is understanding another person’s situation, feelings, and thoughts from their perspective as if you were experiencing it yourself. The language of being human is the connections you build by being empathetic to others.