Focusing on Others: Empathy, Social Intuition, & Body Language

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 is social intuition? How important is attention when it comes to social interactions?

In Focus, Daniel Goleman discusses various directions of attention. One way we can direct our attention is toward others. According to Goleman, an effective focus on others builds several life skills: empathy, social intuition, and the ability to read body language.

Keep reading to learn how focusing on others can help you develop these skills.


Empathy is tuning into others and feeling as they feel, which is a crucial skill in social connection. Goleman points out that, to feel what others are feeling, you must focus on others; you must pay 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.

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.

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.

Social Intuition

When we turn our beam of attention on others, we pick up on social cues that help us interact socially with others.

Social intuition is how good you are at collecting and making sense of nonverbal information from people and then using that information to modify your behavior. This skill helps you navigate group dynamics and “fit in” to groups like school cohorts or at a new job. Social intuition is a largely bottom-up, instinctual process. People who have chronic problems with social intuition may come off as rude, say inappropriate things, and violate social norms.

Body Language

Focusing on others helps us pick up on body language. Like social intuition, this aids in social interactions.

Paying attention to body language helps us navigate social situations, understand what others are feeling and expressing, and read between the lines of communication. The cognitive process of understanding the unsaid is largely bottom-up—unconscious and automatic. But the skill can be learned and developed with practice.

(Shortform note: Skills in reading body language and skills in social intuition are related: Mastery of either one will help with mastery of the other, and both are dependent on having strong self-awareness. In Quiet, Susan Cain calls these skills self-monitoring. She explains that people who are good at self-monitoring do two things: they notice social cues from others, and they notice how their behavior can change to blend in with what those cues say about the group.)

Focusing on Others: Empathy, Social Intuition, & Body Language

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Daniel Goleman's "Focus" at Shortform.

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, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks 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 book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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