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An Overview of Integrative Empathy

Empathy consists of at least five elements, with corresponding practices.

Key points

  • Empathy has many definitions and even within one field of study they’re far from consistent.
  • We consider empathy as holding space for others as they are.
  • We identify five distinct but interconnected elements of empathy: self-, kinesthetic, reflective, imaginative empathy, and empathic creativity.
Bough, oil on canvas, Candace Charlton, 2013, used with permission.
Source: Bough, oil on canvas, Candace Charlton, 2013, used with permission.

When we ask people what empathy is, a common response is “to put yourself into someone’s shoes." We also hear that it involves knowing about the thoughts and feelings of others. However, in business, we detect an aversion to emotions. Understanding others: great; feeling with others: meh…

In short, empathy is holding space for another person to express themselves, as they are. It allows us to connect, feel, and understand the experiences of others. However, empathy has many definitions and even within one field of study they’re far from consistent. With increasing interest, empathy has become an umbrella term for many processes of shared experiences.

Science now distinguishes three forms of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and empathic concern. Cognitive empathy is understanding another’s point of view. Emotional empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. Empathic concern is a response to the distress of another person which is consistent with the distress you perceive them to be in. These definitions, however, are influenced by current trends and limits in psychology and social neuroscience. Empathy is explored in other disciplines too.

In our practice, we combine knowledge from different disciplines into an integrated definition of empathy. Our claim that empathy is holding a space for others, as they are, distinguishes it from empathy as intervening with others, no matter how well intended. Holding space is not about interjecting, nor bringing good intentions. Rather, it brings a neutral quality to your relationships. Integrating research and practice on empathy in psychology, philosophy, the arts, primatology, evolutionary biology, medicine, neuroscience, the humanities, and anthropology, we identify five distinct, but interconnected elements of empathy:

  • Self-empathy
  • Kinesthetic empathy
  • Reflective empathy
  • Imaginative empathy
  • Empathic Creativity

Be present with self-empathy

Understanding others requires that we first understand ourselves. In self-empathy we notice and recognise what is happening in us and work with it in order to be present for others. We’re not talking about feeling sorry for, or caring for, ourselves. Self-empathy starts with observing ourselves in an empathic manner, becoming aware of our conscious and hidden agendas.

It helps us to take control of how we are in a situation, taking a moment to sense and make sense of what we feel and think, with an attitude of openness and suspended judgment. If we don’t do this, we are likely to succumb to various pitfalls. We might confuse empathy with sympathy or emotional contagion or project ourselves on others. Biases and preconceptions cause us to confuse our own experience with that of others.

Self-empathy is the ability to bring awareness to your own state in the moment and thus to distinguish your own experience from the experience of others

Through self-empathy we develop a sense of agency, the awareness of ourselves as the initiator of actions, desires, thoughts and feelings. It enables us to differentiate our own experience from the experience of someone else and prepares us to empathize with them.

Working with the ‘unsaid’ with kinesthetic empathy

Kinesthesia is one of our subtle senses. We sense our body’s position and movement with proprioceptors in the muscles and joints. In kinesthetic empathy, we connect with others by coordinating and synchronizing with their bodily expressions. We intuit someone's’ inner experiences through their outer bodily expressions.

Kinesthetic empathy is the ability to sense into somebody’s movement, or their sensory experience of movement via direct motor representation.

Kinesthetic empathy has two main purposes: First, to become aware of and explore how we influence each other’s physical space. It establishes embodied connection and synchronization through experience rather than cognition. Second, we modify our own bodily expressions to hold space for another person. How do you express the space you hold for someone? How will they notice?

Presence with reflective empathy

Have you noticed, when listening to someone, how quickly you are inclined to share your own story or insights? Or have you felt yourself cut off by someone giving you unwanted advice? This happens because your listener listened to react. In empathic listening we don’t listen to react, but to reflect.

In reflective empathy we apply empathic listening skills to stay present and ensure we understand the person we listen to. Empathic listening is an iterative process of listening and reflecting back what we hear. The speaker hears an echo of his expressions, offered in a way that invites them to amend or reject what is reflected. If the reflection is a faithful representation of what the speaker had in mind, then mutual understanding is achieved.

Reflective empathy is the ability to actively listen and reflect back what you hear, including factual information and felt meaning.

In empathic listening, we listen to the content and the ‘felt meaning’ of a speaker. The content is expressed in words and the felt meaning, or subjective experience, is communicated through intonation, body language, and what is not being said.

Valuing perspectives with imaginative empathy

Imaginative empathy uses as-if acting and embodied imagination to gain insight into another’s experience. Using self-empathy, active inquiry, and wonder, we embody another person’s perspective in order to gain an experience of their mental life. This ‘as-if’ experience is not their experience, as we cannot inherently know the experience of others. Yet, the practice of imaginative empathy guides us to understand and value other perspectives.

Imaginative Empathy is the ability to gain insight into the experiences of others through embodied imagination, stepping in and out of perspectives.

When we identify with what we believe, thinking we're right, we miss out on understanding other perspectives. Cultivating detached observation in the midst of our actions and interactions is vitally important. We have to drop the way we see things to really try to see it the way others do so that we open up to novel perspectives and experiences.

From inspiration to action with empathic creativity

Practising empathy sparks empathic creativity. It is not a practice of empathy itself but a creative consequence of empathy practices. Empathic creativity can be an insight, a discovery, or a creative outburst. It can show itself as inspiration to try new behaviours or to find solutions to problems. It can also be expressed in generosity: offering financial support, ideas or time; or as a generosity of heart: offering protection, emotional support and love to others.

Empathic creativity starts with an intention or plan to take action. The art of empathic creativity is to notice when creativity is sparked, take note of emerging intentions and translate them into actionable outcomes.

Empathic Creativity is the ability to notice significant change events and to convert them to actionable outcomes

Research shows that empathy training can be highly effective. Yet in order to master it, we need practices. Empathy is not learned through ‘understanding’ what it means but by practising specific skills, preferably in real life. And once you’ve acquired the skills, it’s up to you to maintain them. Empathy, after all, is not something that we are but something we do.


Hall, J. A., & Schwartz, R. (2019). Empathy present and future. Journal of Social Psychology, 159, 225-243.

Moore, J. W. (2016). What is the sense of agency and why does it matter?. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1272.

Teding van Berkhout, E., & Malouff, J. M. (2016). The efficacy of empathy training: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of counseling psychology, 63(1), 32.

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