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A daughter showing empathy to their elderly partent

Empathy: understanding the three variations

cliftonstrengths empathy personal development professsional development relationship domain talent Jul 14, 2020

Empathy is one of CliftonStrengths’ nine relationship building themes. With 18% of CliftonStrengths assessment international users having Empathy in their top five ranking, it is the seventh most frequently seen of the 34 CliftonStrengths’ themes.

It is also one of the themes that people seem to have the most difficulty defining. In discussions at the Strengths Performance Centre and at our monthly Meetup on CliftonStrengths, people often mistake Empathy in the conversation with “being an empath” or “having empathy.”

But does having a dominant theme of Empathy automatically make you an empath? And is Empathy always synonymous with having empathy? The short answer is no. While those who have this Strength can be an empath and can have empathy, these types of associations are not always a given when it comes to the Empathy theme.

There also seems to be an unwarranted bias in the way that people with this theme are perceived by others. They are often misunderstood and are seen as being too emotional. Empathy can sometimes be viewed as a weakness by those who don’t know it’s true meaning — but this actually couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to Merriam-Webster, their official definition for empathy – which is different from CliftonStrengths’ Empathy – is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

In even simpler terms, Dr. Brené Brown, a researcher professor who’s studied empathy for more than two decades, defines empathy as “feeling with people.”

When used to its full potential, Empathy is a superpower. And to help make the distinctions between Empathy versus having empathy versus being an empath clearer, this article aims to define and explain each subset.




Having empathy

That Merriam-Webster definition of empathy is a pretty standard way of explaining the notion of having empathy.

What really sets having empathy apart from the rest is through the process, you can also feel the emotions. Not only do you have the ability to see, recognize and acknowledge when someone is crying, but you might want to cry when they cry. You might want to get angry when they’re angry. You might feel happiness when they’re happy.

This is known as affective empathy, which the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley refers to as “the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions.” This type of empathy allows you to experience the emotions of others, which generally leads to feelings of compassion for what they are going through.

Having empathy is also the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes so that you can understand what they are going through on a more personal and emotional level. The Greater Good Science Center calls this cognitive empathy, which is “our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions.”

Cognitive empathy is usually seen as step one in the empathy chain of reactions: once you intellectually understand someone’s situation completely by putting yourself in their shoes, you can then move on to the affective empathy stage of embodying that person’s emotions. Of feeling with them.

However, it is important to note that you should never feel pity for others during this process. If that happens, then you are dealing with sympathy, not empathy.

According to Dr. Brené Brown, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” This is because sympathy creates an uneven power dynamic that can make people feel even more isolated. On the other hand, empathy makes people feel understood and supported. Empathy brings people together.

Having empathy is also a key attribute in determining a person’s emotional intelligence (also known as emotional quotient or EQ). Believed by some to be more important than a person’s IQ in determining their success, EQ is about perceiving, using, understanding and managing our emotions effectively, as well as the emotions of others.

Having a high EQ helps to improve all aspects of one’s life: personal, home, community, work, etc. For example, at work, an employee with a high EQ is better at communicating with others, building strong client relationships and working effectively within a team.

In fact, research carried out by the Carnegie Institute of Technology showed that 85% of a person’s financial success comes from skills in “human engineering,” in which your EQ plays a huge part. The Harvard Business Review also found that 90% of top performing employees have a higher level of emotional intelligence.

On the flip side, someone who is lacking empathy typically has a low level of emotional intelligence and struggles within society because of this.

While some people are naturally more empathetic than others, the good news is that those who are somewhat lacking in the empathy department can always improve their EQ by making a conscious choice to practice having empathy for others.

This is ultimately what makes having empathy different from being an empath and from having the CliftonStrengths’ Empathy theme in your top five ranking. While you can always work to improve having empathy, the latter two are natural talents that you are born with.



Being an empath

A descriptor that’s generally used in a spiritual sense, empaths are known for being emotional sponges. It is for this reason that being an empath goes a step further than simply having empathy.

Not only can they recognize and sense the emotions in a room, they often take on the energy from those emotions – whether they want to or not. Empaths aren’t putting themselves in someone else’s shoes in order to understand an emotion, they actually receive a direct transfer of that person’s emotions.

Empaths are an extremely rare occurrence. While roughly 20% of the population is composed of highly sensitive individuals, who are often mislabelled as empaths, estimates suggest that only 1-3% of the population are truly empaths.

Possibly due to its rarity, there has not been as much research done on empaths. But with what has been researched, it seems that being an empath is physiological — happening at the core of the body. One explanation is that empaths probably have hyper-responsive mirror neurons, which are the brain cells responsible for feelings such as compassion. While these cells allow everyone to mirror or share in the emotions of others, empaths' mirror neurons are working on overdrive, which might explain why they absorb the emotions of others rather than just having feelings of empathy for them.

Some signs that indicate an empath are feeling drained after spending time around certain people, feeling sudden bursts of unexplained emotions when in crowds, and needing time alone to restore their emotional reserves, among others.

Empaths can also turn low, negative emotional vibrations into high, positive ones. Because of this, empaths are known for being natural healers. Many people actually believe that the purpose behind empaths absorbing emotions is so that they feel prompted to take action to turn those negative vibes into positive ones. They do so not just to selflessly help others, but also to reprieve themselves of the negative vibrations being transferred to them.

Many clients of the Strengths Performance Centre who have Empathy as a dominant Strength, have also described themselves as being an empath. However, just like having empathy is not the same as being an empath, the same idea applies for those with the Empathy theme.

But if you still truly believe yourself to be an empath, it is highly recommended that you read up more on it, as there is lots of important and useful information out there on how to better protect your energy.



CliftonStrengths’ Empathy theme

Within Gallup’s CliftonStrengths assessment reports, people with the Empathy theme are summarized as being able to “sense the feelings of others by imagining [themselves] in others’ lives or others’ situations.” But the Empathy theme goes even deeper than that.

As intuitive beings, people with Empathy can perceive people’s pain or joy before the emotion is even expressed. They are experts at anticipating needs and can hear the unvoiced questions. They do not necessarily agree with the choices of others, but they can understand. Their edge comes from their instinctive way of understanding — which is something that sets Empathy apart from other themes.

While others might have trouble finding the right words, people with the Empathy theme seem to know what to say and they say it in the right tone. They not only can sense the emotions of others, they help give voice to the emotional lives of others by helping them to express their feelings. People are typically drawn to those with the Empathy theme for these reasons.

As you probably already know, the CliftonStrengths report is personalized to each person who takes it. This is why having the Empathy theme does not necessarily mean that your personality is solely centred around having empathy. CliftonStrengths’ version of Empathy is so much more than that and it all depends on the individual.

People with the Empathy theme in their top five don’t just feel the emotions of others, they are proactive about what they do with that emotional information.

For example, if someone at work is feeling negative about a situation, people gifted with Empathy can quickly pick up on that feeling in the room. They can then use that information as leverage to ask the right questions or say the right words to help address the feeling. Managers tend to know exactly how to make the employee feel comfortable enough so that they can express their discomfort at work, and they can also empower them to do something that’ll right the situation.

While having empathy is all about feeling the emotions of others, the Empathy theme is all about sensing the emotions around them and knowing what to do with them.


A final reminder


They might sound the same, they might even feel the same to some people, but as you can see, having empathy, being an empath, and CliftonStrengths’ Empathy are all very different.

The final thing that I’d like to point out is that just because Empathy may not be a dominant theme for you, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have empathy for someone else, that you can’t take on the emotions like an empath, that you lack emotional intelligence or that you don’t care about others. It simply means that the way in which you relate with others is probably less about what you sense are the feelings and more about the verbal and non-verbal cues given from the other person.

Hopefully, this helps to demystify the ways of understanding Empathy vs being an empath vs having empathy. Maybe it will even encourage you to further discover this relationship building theme to discover the power and edge — the superpower — of having Empathy in your Top 5 Signature CliftonStrengths themes.