Daniel Goleman: Empathy Requires You to Pay Attention

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Focus" by Daniel Goleman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are there different kinds of empathy? What does empathy have to do with attention? How can you become more empathetic?

According to Daniel Goleman, empathy requires attention. In Focus, he explains how empathy is a form of focusing on—turning your attention toward—others. He also describes three different kinds of empathy we can practice.

Keep reading to learn about Goleman’s concept of empathy.

Daniel Goleman on Empathy

According to Daniel Goleman, empathy is tuning into others and feeling as they feel, which is a crucial skill in social connection. Goleman’s concept of empathy is connected to attention: You can’t feel what another person is feeling if you aren’t paying attention to them. He describes three kinds of empathy: emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and empathic concern.

Emotional empathy is when you personally feel the emotions another person or group of people are feeling. Bottom-up processing helps with this, allowing you to pay attention to subtle information, like nonverbal cues and tone of voice, that clue us into their emotions.

(Shortform note: Emotional empathy is a good example of how the skills of each direction of attention build on one another. If you lack self-awareness and can’t detect or interpret what you’re feeling, you’ll struggle to pick up on what someone else is feeling because your body is also the instrument that detects emotional information from others. Researchers on empathy assert that the first step to empathizing with another person is to have self-awareness and empathy for yourself.)

Cognitive empathy is a top-down orientation to what other people are experiencing. It allows you to understand their thoughts, feelings, and state of mind but not to personally feel what they’re going through. This lets you tap into top-down cognitive skills like problem-solving, which can be especially useful in situations when someone needs your help and you must stay clear-headed and calm to do so.

(Shortform note: People on the Autism spectrum are often stereotyped for lacking the ability to empathize. Experts point out that people with Autism do not struggle with emotional empathy—they feel their own feelings and those of others very deeply. But they can struggle with cognitive empathy. Trying to read another’s body language and facial expressions and accurately interpret their emotional meaning can be challenging for people with Autism.)

Empathic concern is related to compassion. It is a blend of bottom-up and top-down processes that help us feel and evaluate. It allows us to go beyond merely understanding what another person is going through and instead moves us to help them.

(Shortform note: Goleman’s choice to separate empathic concern from emotional and cognitive empathy is confusing since emotional and cognitive empathy produce emotions and impulses to respond to others. It’s hard to imagine feeling or understanding someone’s distress and not feeling motivated to engage with them in a supportive way. Therefore, Goleman may have intended to present empathic concern as a natural outcome of empathy rather than a separate variety.)

Empathy doesn’t always come naturally to everyone or in all situations. The good news is most people can improve empathy with practice. Goleman discusses one way to practice—fake it till you make it. Suppose you don’t feel empathetic toward someone but want to be. In that case, practice “behavioral empathy,” where you perform the actions of empathy, like looking people in the eye and mirroring their body language. Likely, the feeling of empathy will follow.

[Shortform note: In Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg explains that having and expressing empathy for others can be challenging if you are emotionally or physically exhausted or have strong feelings about the situation that the other person is dealing with. If you are in the right headspace to be empathetic towards someone else, you can practice empathic listening in which you give your full attention to what the other person is saying (verbally and nonverbally) and refrain from trying to come up with the “right” answer, argue with them, or “fix” the situation.]
Daniel Goleman: Empathy Requires You to Pay Attention

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Here's what you'll find in our full Focus summary:

  • How to understand, strengthen, and use your attention to lead a more fulfilling life
  • The three directions you can aim your attention: inward, toward others, and outward
  • How spending time in nature restores your attention

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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