The word “emotional intelligence” is very important because it describes the ability to understand not only our own emotions but also the emotions of others. Emotional intelligence is an ability that allows us to interact more harmoniously with others, because we understand how they feel and we are able to do so because we also understand our own feelings.  But emotional intelligence is more than this.  It involves the ability to use these feelings to build relationships with others and to reduce the stress that can come from misunderstandings with others.

Emotional intelligence is therefore considered an important ability regardless of one’s position in the world, because it allows us to empathize with situations that we may observe around us, and enables us to act in ways that improve the situations for ourselves and for others.  Empathy is an important subset of emotional intelligence.

Why is Empathy so Important?

In order to appreciate why empathy is so important, we must understand the true nature of empathy. Empathy is usually described as the ability to feel other people’s emotions, but empathy encompasses much more than this.  Empathy is about being able to identify, observe, and understand the feelings, and then able to take action when needed to improve situations.   

Importance of Emotional Intelligence

What is Empathy?

Empathy can be seen as encompassing two components: affective or emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. While these two components of empathy are often thought of as one, they are really two separate abilities. But there is another component of empathy: compassion or compassionate empathy. In short, there are three components of empathy: affective or emotional empathy, cognitive empathy and compassionate empathy. Why is a differentiation made between these different components of empathy? The reason is that these different components of empathy can lead to different logical conclusions.

Affective or Emotional Empathy

Affective or Emotional Empathy is the feelings we experience when we first respond to the emotions of others. We display the ability to experience the pain, anxiety or fear when we see others displaying different emotions. This component of empathy is that part that allows us to be affected by the emotions we see others experiencing. For example, we may observe someone being sad, but we may be unable to understand how that person may be feeling. Or we may observe a person feeling upset and we know what it is like to be upset.  Being able to feel a person’s emotions is something many people experience, but many are not able to move beyond this threshold of affective empathy.

Cognitive Empathy or Perspective Taking

Cognitive empathy is often referred to as perspective taking, because it deals with people’s ability to understand how other people are feeling under particular circumstances. It is this form of empathy that allows us to imagine what others may be feeling or thinking in the situation. Having this form of empathy is fundamental to understanding the world around us and it helps us to interact with others. This empathy works because people are also able to see the perspective of other people. It is thought that this form of empathy is something that we can learn, as we can be taught how to recognize the emotional state of others and how to respond to this state. This component of empathy determines morality, for it is based on the Golden rule, or doing unto others as we would have others do to us.

Cognitive Empathy or Perspective Taking

Compassion or Compassionate Empathy

While we may be able to feel the emotions that another person is going through (affective empathy) and may be able to imagine and understand what the other person may be thinking and feeling (cognitive empathy), there is yet another component of empathy that will make us truly empathic: compassion or compassionate empathy. Compassionate empathy is reaching out to others to offer help. This is not an automatic aspect of empathy. There are many people who could feel, who could even imagine and understand the feelings, but who are not moved to take action that could help to change the circumstances. Compassionate empathy is what moves us to take action on behalf of others.

Can someone have Empathy and still not Help?

This is quite possible and happens quite often. Simply seeing someone in distress does not necessarily move a person to take action. That person could simply feel sad, or anxious, or fearful on observing the emotions of the other person. Even when the person observing moves to imagine what the other person may be thinking and feeling, he or she may not be moved to do anything about the situation. This person may still be said to have empathy. However, it is when empathy becomes compassionate that a person is moved to give some form of assistance.  

Why is Empathy Important?

Empathy is important because possessing it in its entirety enables us to move to the logical conclusion to help others solve many problems. Empathy allows us to see the perspective of others, and this could lead to peaceful coexistence despite difference of ideas.

If we are going to be truly empathic, if we are to have the aspects of empathy that go into our emotional intelligence, then we have to be able to possess affective or emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy. Having emotional intelligence also embraces our greater understanding of ourselves and how we relate to other people. Whether we are teens, young adults, or older adults, whether we are students,  homemakers, business people, or professionals, having empathy and emotional intelligence are foundational to our success in life.

Developing Emotional Intelligence: 30 Ways for Older Teens and Young Adults to Develop their Caring Capabilities provides a full discussion of the many ways in which we can fully develop these capabilities. Available at Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1775009459

Discover more about emotional intelligence with these valuable resources:

  1. Emotional Intelligence, Reflection and Leadership
  2. Emotional Intelligence for Young People