Not only do first impressions last; they can be deceiving, too. We often take it for granted that the people we deal with are just like us, and that they share our world views, feelings, impressions, and expectations in their day-to-day interactions.

Communicating with someone who does not share any of our sentiments – or does not know how to share – can leave us feeling resentful, abandoned, rejected, and deeply hurt.

Research (Lewin, 1951; Stimac, 1979; Goleman, 2009) has shown that understanding and developing strategies for effective communication in reactive situations is not only vital to our overall health and mental well-being, it also strengthens and deepens our existing connections with others.

It’s not always easy to see another’s point of view when we feel misunderstood, but what role does empathy play in effective communication?


Empathy is the part of us that gives us the ability to feel and understand something from another’s point of view; to literally put ourselves in another person’s position and understand the decisions and choices they may or may not make in that specific moment. It is the ability to weigh up reactive situations and manage them effectively on an emotional level.

Generated as a literal translation of the German psychological term Einfühlung, which means “feeling-in”, two UK psychologists coined the word “empathy” in 1908. “Empathy” draws on the Greek words em (in) and pathos (feeling) to describe the way we feel when responding to others.

The role of empathy in emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (also known as emotional quotient or EQ, and used interchangeably in most instances) is a term credited to two psychology teachers at College Columbia University in their book entitled “The Communication of Emotional Meaning”.

Two Yale researchers have also been credited with the term’s origin, although they declined the credit and attributed it to earlier researchers.

In 1995, a contentious book entitled “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” catapulted its author (Goleman) into the spotlight, holding its #1 place on the New York Times Best Seller list for a year and a half. At that time, Goleman was a relatively unknown lecturer and science reporter for the New York Times.

In the seven decades since its first notable mention, EI (or EQ) has been used to describe almost any behaviour that contributed in some way to understanding or defining emotional intelligence as a concept.

More recently, researchers are finding that EI and EQ are not interchangeable except in abstract ways when discussing them, and that they each have their own dimensions and nuances.

How do EI and EQ differ, and how can we use both elements successfully in reactive situations?

In order to understand the role of empathy in communication, we must first understand the role communication plays in conflict situations that may require us to be more empathetic when dealing with ourselves and others.

In these situations, open and accommodating two-way communication is a vital tool that lets us form a deeper understanding of the person we are now conflicting with.

In Goleman 1995, five core elements of emotional intelligence were discussed, where effective communication forms part of social skills (also known as Social Intelligence).

This 12-trait list of EI must-have’s are a great place to start if you think your ability to communicate effectively is blocked by elements of EI that you haven’t yet focused on, or may be unaware is lacking in your approach:

Empathy relies heavily on social skills, and requires that we make intelligent decisions in conflict situations. Social skills include being able to sum up situations quickly and accurately, and remembering similar past experiences and how we coped at that time.

Conflict resolution requires effective communication, which we do by using active listening skills and modifying our approaches and behaviour in these situations.

For this, both EI and EQ will need to work together to generate intelligent Emotional Quotient (iEQ) that is self-managed, practical, logical, and observable in reactive situations.

The model below highlights key differences between EI and EQ, and gives practical insight into what constitutes an intelligent Emotional Quotient.

How iEQ is generated. Adapted from Goleman (1995), Semrud-Clikeman (2007), Bariso (2016), Cleverism (2019) 

The different types of empathy

Empathy at its most effective is a fine balancing act that requires we see, understand, and react appropriately in all situations.

To do this, we draw on different elements of empathy to respond to others. This holistic approach can elevate our communication to the point where it’s possible to start discussing solutions instead of problems.

Until recently, the two most common elements of empathy were cognition and emotion. But empathy without compassion is simply the brain telling us to respond in a certain way to the current situation.

Cognitive empathy is that part of us that remembers what something felt like the last time we experienced it and uses this knowledge to sympathize with someone going through a similar experience or to take pity on them due to circumstances. Sympathy and pity are often referred to in articles about empathy, but the two feelings are quite opposite to each other. Sympathy is a reaction to a specific event or situation but does not contain the same distress as that event or situation. Pity is more of an abstract feeling where we can’t quite imagine how this feels, but think we should feel sorry for because it’s the right way to “feel”.

Related: Try These Cognitive Restructuring Exercises to Improve Your Mood and Reduce Stress

When we imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we need to be able to either have felt that same feeling before, to have experienced a moment during a movie or a book that resonated with us, or we need to dig deeper to fully understand the other person’s reactions and perspectives. Understanding is not always about experience. Sometimes it means we have to be the bigger person.

Cognitive empathy strips away the primitive parts of our “fight or flight” responses and lets us consider a bigger picture, based on several possible outcomes we briefly run through in our heads. This is how understanding in empathy is fully awakened.

If people sometimes think you’re cold and disconnected, you may unknowingly be using only your cognitive empathy abilities, without an emotional response that verifies your commitment to understanding how another “feels”. This is not uncommon however, emotional intelligence can be trained and acquired as a new skill, and has been shown to be very effective at raising iEQ.

Emotional empathy (or affective empathy) is the intuitive, caring, concerned feeling we get when someone is hurt or sharing something deeply personal with us. We “feel” what the other is feeling. There is no thought that goes into how we feel or what we feel; it simply is. “Affective” implies that something affects us, that we “feel” it.

However, feeling something and not being able to understand why you feel it lacks the deep, rich commitment to resolve an issue or solve a problem that we’d normally associate with empathy.

Figure 2: Elements of Empathy.  Adapted from Goleman (1995) and Spitz (2020)

Compassionate empathy requires huge reserves of patience, kindness, understanding, and awareness – of self and others. Sometimes the pain we once felt is key to understanding another’s pain. In turn, helping another may be beneficial to us when we need to cope with our own needs.

Self-compassion is critical to our capacity to take care of ourselves, first. It’s not possible to pour out of an empty cup, so why would you expect to be able to take care of someone else when you haven’t built up reserves to take care of yourself? Mindfulness

Compassion underlies all ethical, open, and transparent conversations – even those we have with ourselves.


Our relationships form the basis of every interaction with another human being, and maintaining those relationships is integral to our health and well-being.

Whilst empathy can also be used to describe the way we feel about all living things, from a communication aspect it is only applicable to humans and the way we react and respond to other humans.

But why is empathy so necessary to human interactions? Why do we need empathy?

Empathy is one of the core elements that build, maintain and strengthen our relationships, be that personal or professional.

In today’s virtual- and team-oriented digital landscape, empathy is often overlooked when onboarding new hires, yet most organizations now include customized emotional intelligence training as part of their onboarding processes.

Whilst this may solve the immediate problem, empathy is not something one can easily teach if the human element is not present or has been damaged by physical or psychological problems that cause deficiencies in our responses.

Why would some people lack empathy?

Alexithymia is the term used to describe the clinical inability to identify, describe or discuss our own emotions, or what others are feeling, too.

For some, withdrawing from an empathy-overload response is the best way to preserve strength in certain situations, but this may be misconstrued as the “fight or flight” response, which may also be seen as a detached response or as self-concerned, unhelpful, and unfeeling. This detachment is known as emotional numbing or blunting.

This inability or unwillingness “to feel” can be brought on by a number of factors including our environments, our genetic traits (such as disease and DNA defects), the family quirks we “inherit”, past traumatic events (such as an assault), and psychological damage that numbs our ability to feel anything – except in extreme cases (Quist, 2017; Cleverism, 2020).

Understanding clinical deficiencies

Depending on who you talk to, any one of a number of psychological disorders could also reflect a lack of empathy. Examples of these disorders include narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths.

Whilst narcissists are characterized by their unwillingness to extend or show empathy towards those they interact with, this does not necessarily mean they lack empathy. They simply choose not to be empathetic towards a specific person or persons (Lamia, 2020).

The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) characterizes those personality disorders of the mind with persistent negative behaviours under the umbrella term “antisocial personality disorder” or ASPD (Jewell, 2018).

Unlike narcissists (who are selectively empathetic), most ASPD sufferers are unaware of their mental illness until they are clinically diagnosed.

For those who are yet to be diagnosed or show more than the average, everyday symptoms of a stressed, busy person at work, emotional intelligence training may be beneficial, if only when conducted in a group setting that would orient them to others’ feelings (Cleverism, 2019).


Our well-being and happiness are intricately linked to our ability to communicate with one another in all situations and in relationships we develop. Group settings and social contexts – such as those in organizations – are particularly tricky to navigate and manage.

In these reactive situations, being aware of our own and others’ behaviours, and by being responsive and employing active listening skills to guide us and better inform our perceptions of that moment.

Elements that block effective communication

When we’re unaware that we have or display a lack of empathy, behavioral changes begin with open dialog between the observer (of the behaviour) and the individual or group displaying this behaviour.

An open dialog means we listen actively – not just to reply – and don’t take it personally.

Developing active communication skills

If active listening is defined as listening to hear, not listening to reply, then active communication involves using more open-ended questions that elicit expansive responses so whoever you’re interacting with responds to your interest in what they have to say and you as the listener gets to see a broader picture of that issue.

It may not always be possible to employ active communication skills in group settings that have become reactive in nature. In general, enhancing your active communication skills has a number of benefits, some of which are listed below.

  • Active communication skills help you develop deeper relationships
  • Enhanced skills will bolster trust and respect from colleagues and peers
  • It’s easier for others to display empathy when we show we care about their issues
  • Teams are more productive because communication is not a broken tool
  • A better understanding of issues at hand will help you see a wider range of solutions
  • Conflict management becomes easier when issues are discussed openly
  • Enhanced communication skills are regarded as a leadership trait


Avoiding conflict presents its own problems, and reactive situations that generate conflict are likely to be inevitable in group or social settings (Cleverism, 2019). It’s easy to communicate with one person at a time to calm down reactive situations, but how do you deal with multiple speakers at once?

At its core, EI is about communicating effectively in any situation. Frustration, fear, anxiety, and anger are traits of negative emotions, which don’t really belong in the EI group of behaviours. Instead, EI behaviours are more balanced, cooperative, accommodating, and transparent.

New hires that display positive EI traits are fast-tracked onto leadership programs, and leaders are propelled into team management roles. Why?

Displaying active communication skills means you have mastered the art of being able to manage and resolve most conflict situations – and nobody likes to be in the middle of one of those!

An understanding of how the other person feels gives us unique perspectives that open us up to a give-and-take of available information. With all available information at hand, decision-making becomes more intelligent and is backed by immediate data.

For conflict situations that involve someone with more (perceived) power than you (such as a partner or manager at work), you may need to use more patience and restraint than you would if you were with a friend, for example.

Disagreeing may seem hard at first, and could be driven by a few issues, such as unrealistic expectations about deliverables, opposing views and differences in opinions, inherent personality traits that just don’t gel with your own, or they could simply have different values to yours that inspire a lack of confidence or trust.

Being unable to trust someone (that you thought you could) or lacking confidence in their abilities or management styles could land you in hot water if you’re not emotionally and cognitively aware of the potential conflict in some situations.

So how do you make sure that you’re able to deal with people who seem to have a lack of empathy?

Tips to boost communication in reactive situations

Allowing negative EI traits to determine your decisions may seem tempting but is it going to serve you in the long run?

Your overall well-being and the success of your organization rely on your effective communication. Cleverism (2020) and Nathani (2018) suggest the following when dealing with people in power:

  • Be realistic about your perceptions of what could happen – it’s easy to slip into fear and paranoia, but thinking realistically about the outcome of any given interaction will also give you a better perspective of how to deal with it
  • Take your time to actively listen to what you hear so that your responses are appropriate and relevant. One way to manage this is to let your “opponent” lead the discussion while you assess the situation
  • Lead ensuing discussions by discussing what you heard them say – not only does this affirm that you were indeed listening to them but that you were paying attention, too (which is, after all, what people really want when they engage with you)
  • Choose your battles wisely – is this the right time to enter into this discussion, or could it realistically be postponed to dissolve the reactive situation?
  • Consider the other person’s point of view – being able to literally “walk a mile in another’s shoes” is a great personality trait and displays effective mirroring techniques
  • Remain positive – remember the more balanced, cooperative, accommodating, and transparent EI behaviours discussed above?
  • Find common ground – begin with positive reinforcement by framing your responses in such a way that does not flatter, but rather encourages the other person to elaborate to the point where a give and take of ideas becomes the new norm
  • Disagree – but respectfully. Asking permission to offer an alternative point of view can sometimes seem tedious, but is one of the best approaches when dealing with blatant opposition
  • Losing your cool may seem like the most logical thing to do at that moment in time, but is the ripple effect worth it? Try to remain calm by taking a few deep breaths and a short step backwards so that you give the other person more space to breathe in – which, of course, makes you less threatening
  • Believe in your opinion – anxiety erodes confidence and we unknowingly speak faster and softer to hide that. Speaking clearly and slowly also allows the other person to take a moment to have to actively listen to what you’re saying
  • Avoid hasty decisions – and that includes judgment calls. You can hardly make a friend in a year, but you can easily offend one in an hour (Chinese proverb)
  • Use inclusive language – the best way to avoid your point of view being perceived as an attack or a threat is to frame it in such a way that implies it has become an issue for you both. We do this by using I, we, and us statements instead of the traditional “you” used in most arguments
  • Maintain mutual respect – just because you disagree with their point of view doesn’t necessarily mean that either point of view is therefore wrong. It simply means that you will need to collaborate more
  • The last word is overrated as an achievement – be humble and understand that sometimes, someone else is going to have it.
Why Some People Have A Lack Of Empathy (And How To Deal With Them)

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