Blog Post: What About Empathy?

What About Empathy?

By Ed DeRoche

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far. – Professor Daniel Goleman

Over the past month, we have had informal discussions at the Center about violence from bullying to bullets. Teachers and parents, given the events of the past few months, seem to be struggling to find ways and resources to help their children be more in touch with their feelings and concerns about what happens to themselves and others. Thus, I want to say a few words about empathy.

Reflecting on our discussions, I began asking myself some questions about the emotions of sympathy and empathy. For example, the cards, flowers, letters that the Sandy Hook tragedy generated – were those the expressions of sympathy or empathy?

Other questions kept popping up.

  • – What is empathy?
  • – Is empathy different than sympathy?
  • – How does one learn to be emphatic? Can it be taught?
  • – Does the emotion “kick-in“ only when one actually experiences a personal or social tragedy?
  • – Do we teach empathy in our schools? Is empathy in the curriculum?
  • – What do teachers have to know? How do teachers teach it?
  • – How do parents teach it?
  • – Where and how do the young learn to be sympathetic-empathetic?
  • – What resources are available for teachers and parents?

So, like any good researcher, I “googled” the topic! As you might expect there is a rich array of information. For example, I discovered that there is a difference between sympathy and empathy. I discovered that there are three types of empathy. I found out that there are many resources available to teachers and parents. No 700-word blog will be able to thoroughly answer all of these questions. The best I can do here is highlight three discoveries.

Discovery One: There is a difference between sympathy and empathy.

Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others. It goes beyond Sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words have similar usage but differ in their emotional meaning….Empathy (is) understanding what someone else is feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in his/her shoes. Sympathy (is) acknowledging a person’s emotional hardships and providing comfort and assurance.

There is much more to it then these simple definitions. My current view is that there is probably a continuum that begins with the development of an understanding and practicing of sympathy (caring, compassion, etc.) that may “graduate” to enabling one to really experience the empathic stage.

Discovery Two: There are three types of empathy—cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.

Sam Chaltain (, in his blog, “The Empathy Formula,” offers a “formula” based on the works of Goleman and Ekman (Emotional Intelligence). In summary, the first stage of becoming empathetic is cognitive empathy – the act of knowing how another person feels. The capacity to physically feel the emotions of another is identified as emotional empathy. Compassionate empathy is the combination of cognitive and emotional empathy to take action about what one feels and thinks.

Discovery Three: There are resources for teachers, counselors and parents/guardians.

Three examples will suffice.

  1. Roots of Empathy
  2. Second Step
  3. Tribes 

We have resources here at the Center that we will be pleased to send to anyone who responds to this blog or emails us at

I will end the blog with this quote:

How young children FEEL is as important as how they think, and how they are TREATED is as important as what they are taught. – Jack Shonkoff, co-editor, Neurons to Neighborhoods