Empathy: The Role of Empathy in Connection and Relationship

The role of empathy in building connections and relationships

In this blog from our Neuroleader Academy™ in which we explore insights from neuroscience and how to integrate them into everyday life, we consider the critical role of empathy in connection and relationship.

This month, Deborah Hulme, founder of Minerva Engagement and The Neuroleader Academy™ in collaboration with the IGD, explores empathy and why it’s important to who we are and the relationships we build.  Here Deborah explores the role of empathy in connection and relationship, defines what empathy is, what it’s not and how we can develop our empathy skillset to touch all areas of our life.

What is empathy?

Empathy is often defined as the ability to appropriately perceive and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experiences of others.  This ability to reflect upon the feelings and mental states of others is considered just as vital for a healthy democracy, as it is for a healthy organisation. The ability to listen to different perspectives as we hear and feel other people’s emotions.

Empathy is central to overcoming interpersonal difficulty and various neuroscientists, including Simon Baron Cohen (2011) and Jamil Zaki (2015), refer to empathy as an important natural resource to call upon when in conflict with others, or when finding certain relationships challenging.  In addition, those who are more empathic are known, via research, to be more generous (Barraza and Zak, 2009), enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing, (Wei, Liao, Ku and Shaffer, 2011) and experience happier relationships within longer more contented lives (Mitchell, 2004).

Empathy has more than one component

Empathy has been described by Baron Cohen has having two components. The first being a cognitive component which is our ability to imagine or consciously consider another person’s perspective, thoughts and feelings, and secondly, an emotional component, which is our drive to respond appropriately, to show care, and feel with the other person.

According to Baron Cohen, for us to demonstrate empathy both cognitive and emotional components are required. One without the other is not empathy. For example, psychopaths may be able to demonstrate the cognitive component but not the emotional element. They will use cognitive empathy for the purposes of manipulation, however, they have no desire nor need to alleviate distress or suffering.

Whereas those with autism have difficulty with the cognitive element in that they find it difficult to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others, yet the emotional element is intact. When they hear or understand someone is hurt it causes personal upset.

Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman argue that there is also a third component to empathy, which they describe as compassionate empathy, also known as empathic concern. This takes us beyond understanding different perspectives and the ability to feel with others and more towards the desire to help in whatever way we can; to get into action.

Empathy plays a role in our sense of wellbeing and our ability to successfully navigate crisis and change

Recently the focus on empathy has increased, as we have come to understand the importance of connection and relationship to our sense of wellbeing, and particularly the role of empathy, when navigating crisis and change.

Data from a Harvard Longtitudinal Study, which began in the 1930s and spanned an 80-year period demonstrated that relationship and, importantly, the health of our general day-to-day relationships, be they work, family or social relationships, is the fundamental factor that keeps us happy and protects us from the effects of upheaval. Moreso than money, fame, social class, IQ or even genes, and the key to forming and building productive relationships, is empathy.

As empathy erodes it becomes easier to de-humanise those that disagree with us

If we can’t tune in to what other people are thinking or feeling, if we don’t know how to repond appropriately, even in sometimes challenging situations or conversations, it can be very difficult to cultivate long-term connection and a sense of team.

Baron Cohen takes this even further referring to human cruelty as the erosion of empathy. As empathy erodes it becomes easier to de-humanise those that disagree with us, to discount alternative perspectives and to focus on the needs of the self rather than the feelings, needs or concerns of others. In such circumstances, and when pushed to the extreme, it’s possible to move from general disharmony and a sense of self protection to insult, attack and, ultimately, cruelty.

We now know that empathy is not an innate trait, rather a skillset that can be developed

For many years empathy was considered to be an innate trait. You either had it or you didn’t. Nowadays, with the benefit of modern science we know that whilst genes play a part, it is more of a skillset that can be developed.

We also know that empathy can be eroded, possibly more easily than it can be developed. In fact, just as empathy and the importance of human connection is entering common parlance, a growing number of people from neuroscience and the academic world are asking whether we are currently experiencing an empathy crisis due to, for example, increasing materialism, changing parenting methods, our constant ‘on’ culture and technological advances.

Studies indicate that empathy levels are on the decline

A study of American students showed that empathy levels had fallen by 48% between 1979 and the year 2009. Researchers are currently working on an update and, whilst we don’t have that data yet, we do know for example, that eye contact activates certain areas within the brain, which allows us to process another person’s feelings and intentions.

The more we move away from direct eye contact towards technology-driven alternatives the less developed the brain areas involved with attachment and empathy become, particularly among children. And whilst online connections can be empathic, research suggests that the degree of empathy is six times weaker than for real-world interactions.

Virtual communication is not a long-term substitute for person to person communication and connection

Virtual communication has its place and, in certain circumstances it is, as we know, invaluable, however, it is not a long-term substitute for person-to-person communication and connection. It will be interesting in light of technology advances, a fast-moving, and some would argue a polarising world, plus the blurring of home/work boundaries which often hampers family, friends and social connection time, to understand whether the empathy level has moved up or gone down again since 2009.

In summary

In summary, when exploring the role of empathy in connection and relationship, the ability to empathise with others has been shown via many research studies to be a major contributor to our own personal sense of wellbeing and happiness and also to the health of our everyday relationships and connections. It is very difficult to build robust relationships and collaborate with others if we cannot be empathic.

Empathy enables us to build bridges between ourselves and others and whilst genes play a part they are not the whole story. Just as empathy can be eroded it can be developed, enabling us to engage within our networked fast-moving world in a more resilient and meaningful way as we connect with those around us on a human level.

Genes may play a part, yet it should be remembered that empathy is similar to a muscle, the more we use it the more it develops and grows, the less we use it the quicker it withers and weakens.


Deborah Hulme is a practitioner of neuroleadership and the application of neuroscience to improve wellbeing and performance within teams and organisations.  She is a thought-leader and speaker on an international platform.  You can find out more about Minerva Engagement’s Neuroleader Academy™ here, to find out more about what we do and how we might support you and your team then get in touch at engage@minervaengagement.com.

This blog – Empathy: the role of empathy in connection and relationship is developed in partnership with the Institute of Grocery Distributors (IGD) and is now available to access as a podcast.  To listen to this podcast and our full Empathy podcast series, click here.  The IGD is an education and training charity for the food and grocery industry undertaking research for the benefit of the public. It develops people working in or looking to join the industry and creates a secure and sustainable public benefit through publicly sharing best practice and other research on the food industry.


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