What Is Cognitive Empathy and How Does It Work?

What Is Cognitive Empathy and How Does It Work?


Discover the power of cognitive empathy and learn how to develop this essential skill to deepen your relationships with others.

For some, “walking a mile in one’s shoes” is more than just a figure of speech. They can put themselves in your shoes. This superpower has a name: cognitive empathy. 

It’s the ability to understand what others are feeling and thinking, and you can cultivate this ability at any age.

If you’re ready to flex your cognitive empathy muscles, here’s what you need to know about this invaluable skill:

Most importantly, it’s like a muscle in your body: the more you practice it, the stronger it gets.

What Is Cognitive Empathy?

Cognitive empathy is the ability to comprehend another person’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It’s the act of mentally placing yourself in another person’s shoes and tapping into their thoughts and emotions.

This type of empathy is essential to every human interaction because it connects you with others on a deeper level. Additionally, it helps cultivate long-lasting bonds based on compassion and mutual understanding. 

Most importantly, using cognitive empathy will expand your consciousness and help you develop a truly inclusive perspective that accommodates the diversity of viewpoints and subjective truths. 

Read more: 9 Types of Empaths: A Guide to Understanding Empathy

two people talking in a empathetic way

Is Empathy a Cognitive Skill?

Yes, empathy is a cognitive skill. By definition, cognition is the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through observation.

So how does this relate to empathy?

Cognitive empathy is often called empathic accuracy. This means having the acute ability to determine what’s on someone’s mind and how they feel at any given moment.

From an evolutionary perspective, we developed the ability to empathize as a way to process the behavior and feelings of others. Scientifically speaking, there are mirror neurons in our brains that allow us to physically and emotionally mimic others. That is how we can repeat the same expressions and feelings we observe in those around us.

In essence, it’s a skill. So even if you have low cognitive empathy, you can learn and cultivate it to create more enriched and fulfilling interpersonal interactions. S

Cognitive empathy vs. emotional empathy: what is the difference?

There is one crucial difference between the two:

  • Cognitive empathy means you are capable of grasping other people’s thoughts and feelings. 
  • Emotional empathy also known as affective empathy takes it a step further: an affective empath also feels other people’s emotions, including grief, suffering, and joy. 

The bottom line is that emotional empathy enables you to build an utterly deep emotional connection with others because you can genuinely relate to their feelings.

Do Psychopaths Have Cognitive Empathy?

According to an article in Greater Good Magazine by the University of California, Berkeley, psychopaths have lower neural activity in the parts of the brain that are responsible for ethics and empathy. In a way, psychopaths are masters of emotional intelligence. What’s more, they are known to have the ability to sense other people’s feelings with great accuracy.

Cognitive empathy is the capacity to perceive and know what other people feel. And most psychopaths use that to their advantage to manipulate others. From a scientific perspective, they specialize in using cognitive empathy to gain the upper hand.

It means psychopaths recognize emotions and they know what others think, but they simply don’t care. In fact, it’s not uncommon for them to abuse other people’s feelings to manipulate them into certain actions.

Developing cognitive empathy means taking responsibility for your life. And this can bring you closer to having greater success in your personal relationships and a greater relationship with yourself.

two women talking empathetically

How to Improve Your Cognitive Empathy

If you’re looking to improve your cognitive empathy, here are four ways you can get started:

1. Practice active listening

Active listening is one of the skills that can help you absorb and understand another perspective. Linda Clemons, non-verbal communication expert and trainer of Mindvalley’s ​​Body Language for Dating & Attraction Quest, calls it super listening. 

She defines it as the ability to listen to another person as if there is no one else in the room, with intense focus. And it’s one of the most wonderful gifts you can give to someone.

“When you are actively listening to the person, it allows you to sync with them and respond accordingly,” she adds.

2. Ask questions

Active listening and asking powerful questions will give you deep insights into someone else’s experience. 

Most importantly, when you ask questions, it shows that you are genuinely interested in getting to understand their thoughts and feelings. And instead of assuming what they think and feel, you will get the information firsthand.

3. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes

Try to imagine what it would be like to be in the situation another person is facing. This can help you understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions more deeply.

4. Embrace diversity

Exposing yourself to different people, cultures, and experiences will expand your perspectives and make you less judgmental. According to Mahatria, spiritual leader and trainer of Mindvalley’s A Journey to Infinitheism Quest, diversity is paramount for creating a harmonious and inclusive society. 

By embracing it, you can increase your creativity and problem-solving abilities and learn from different experiences and perspectives. 

5. Reflect on your own experiences

Your own experiences have shaped your thoughts and feelings. On top of that, they serve as the filter through which you see the world and the people around you. 

Reflecting on your experiences and reframing their meaning will give you a new perspective and help you be more accommodating of perspectives different from your own.  

6. Practice mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness entails paying attention to your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions to become more aware of your internal world. This awareness can then be directed outwardly to better understand others and their perspectives.

Read more: What Is Mindfulness? 2 Mindfulness Myths Dispelled

7. Observe nonverbal cues

You can read people by paying attention to their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. These nonverbal cues can give you a deeper understanding of how someone is feeling. On top of that, mimicking another person’s nonverbal cues will create rapport and increase liking.

Read more: How to Read People: 7 Secrets Cues From Body Language Experts

Becoming an Emotional Guru with Mindvalley

Cognitive empathy is a crucial skill for building lasting connections, improving communication, and fostering a greater sense of empathy and compassion in the world. In today’s fast-paced and often egocentric society, cultivating cognitive empathy is more crucial than ever.

By developing your ability to see the world from different perspectives, you can become a better listener, a more effective communicator, and a more compassionate human being. And the best part is that anyone can develop cognitive empathy and become an emotional guru, enriched by diverse emotional experiences.

That’s where the Lifebook Online Quest comes in. It’s designed to help you unlock your fullest potential across all dimensions, including your emotional life. 

If you’re ready to live an extraordinary life and share it with others, join Jon and Missy Butcher in their Lifebook Online masterclass. You will identify the emotional life you want to have and the steps you need to take to make it a reality.

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Written by
Irina Yugay