The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, Part 1: Emotion Contagion

An empathic approach to empathy!

In my book and audio learning program, The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, I focus on my Six Essential Aspects of Empathy model, starting with the first, which has a strange name: Emotion Contagion.

Because empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill.

Before empathy can take place, you need to sense that an emotion is occurring – or that an emotion is expected of you. There is currently great debate about how we realize that emotions are required from us, but it is agreed that the process of empathy is dependent, first, upon our capacity to feel and share emotions.

Empathy is hot; it’s a major topic, and it’s currently the focus of extensive review, research, and debate. Researchers all over the world are focusing tremendous attention on defining empathy, and many competing views of the components of empathy are being argued about in academic journals and conferences.

As I did my research for The Art of Empathy (in more than a half dozen academic disciplines), I was at first overwhelmed by the lack of consensus that I found – even about basic questions such as how to identify and name empathy. What was needed, I soon realized, were the observations of a lifelong hyper-empath!

I also needed to create what I call a “big tent” model of empathy that includes everyone: people who are hyper-empathic, people who are hypo-empathic, and people who have been exiled from other models of empathy, because it’s unempathic to exile people from empathy!

An empathic compilation of the six essential aspects of empathy

As I’ve studied the multidisciplinary research, I’ve taken it seriously and relied upon it – but I’ve also relied upon my five decades of empathic study and experience (and my childhood as a hyper-empath) to bring a big tent structure to my model. I’m also relying upon many decades of working with other hyper-empathic people and helping them bring balance to their emotional lives.

These grounded, real-life foundations have led me to separate the processes of empathy into six essential aspects.

I’ve organized empathy this way for two important reasons. First, I want you to understand empathy as a process that’s accessible and malleable (no matter where you currently reside on the empathic continuum) – so that if you have issues with empathy, you’ll be able to zero in on your specific area of concern.

Second, I rely upon these six aspects throughout The Art of Empathy to explain the purpose of the empathic skills and practices I teach – and to help you learn how to identify your strengths and challenges.

I’ll quickly define my six aspects of empathy before I move into a deeper examination of each one (each aspect has its own post).

  1. Emotion Contagion: Before empathy can take place, you need to sense that an emotion is occurring – or that an emotion is expected of you. There is currently great debate about how emotion contagion occurs, and how we realize that emotions are required from us, but it is agreed that the process of empathy is dependent upon our capacity to feel and share emotions. Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill.
  2. Empathic Accuracy: This is your ability to accurately identify and understand emotional states and intentions in yourself and others. Vocabulary is a huge part of your ability to be accurate (see my free Emotional Vocabulary List).
  3. Emotion Regulation: In order to empathize effectively, you’ve got to be able to understand, regulate, and work with your own emotions; you’ve got to be self-aware. When you can clearly identify and regulate your own emotions, you’ll tend to be able to function skillfully in the presence of strong emotions (your own and others’), rather than being overtaken or knocked out of commission by them.
  4. Perspective Taking: This skill helps you imaginatively put yourself in the place of others, see situations through their eyes, and accurately sense what they might be feeling – so that you can understand what others might want or need.
  5. Concern for Others: Empathy helps you connect with others, but the quality of your response depends upon your ability to care about others as well. When you feel emotions with others, accurately identify those emotions, regulate them in yourself, and take the perspective of others, then your sensitive concern will help you engage with them in a way that displays your care and compassion.
  6. Perceptive Engagement: This aspect depends on the five aspects that come before it. Perceptive Engagement allows you to make perceptive decisions based upon your empathy and to respond or act (if necessary) in a way that works for others. Perceptive engagement can be considered the pinnacle of empathic skill, because it combines your capacity to sense and accurately identify the emotions of others, regulate your own emotions, take the perspective of others, focus on them with care and concern, and then do something skillful based upon your perceptions. Notably, in perceptive engagement, you’ll often do something for another that would not work for you at all – and might not even be in your best interests. Perceptive engagement is about the other person’s needs.

These six aspects of empathy build upon each other, and while Emotion Contagion tends to occur instinctively, the rest are more intentional and can be developed (or calmed down in the case of hyper-empathy) with the empathic skills you’ll learn in The Art of Empathy.

In this post, we’ll look at the first aspect of empathy, Emotion Contagion, in a bit more depth.

If the word contagion doesn’t work for you, you can use Emotion Recognition instead. They mean the same thing, but the term emotion contagion comes directly from the research, as do the terms for the first five aspects in my six essential aspects of empathy model.

Emotion Contagion

Emotion Contagion is key to an understanding of empathy, which always includes some form of transmission of emotion from one to another. There is currently a lot of debate about how this transmission occurs.

Some people believe that our ability to empathize comes from our ability to mirror other people. The idea behind mirror neurons isn’t holding water, but sadly, it has taken empathy researchers down some very unfortunate paths. Some people have suggested that autistic people aren’t empathic (nonsense! They’re hyper-empaths!) because their mirror neurons are broken, but that has been found to be untrue (and it’s an unempathic hypothesis, frankly).

It’s more than smoke and mirrors

Emotion Contagion is so much more than simply mirroring emotion, because to accurately pick up on the emotion of another, you also have to understand social contexts and the specific display rules of your community (each family, community, and culture has a different set of rules about how emotions are displayed, which emotions are accepted, which emotions are denied, and how intensely we can feel and display some or all emotions).

You also have to be able to identify multiple intensities of emotion, sense vocal tone and rhythmic changes, watch for subtle body-language cues, understand social relationships, read nuance, undercurrent, and gestural language – you even have to rely upon your sense of smell in many cases (however, we tend not to be consciously aware of the many decisions we make based on our very sensitive noses).

There’s a great deal more to Emotion Contagion than mirroring others – because you’ve really got to understand the full context in which the emotion occurs in order to sense which emotion it is. This contextual sensitivity is a part of the second aspect of empathy, Empathic Accuracy, but it’s important to mention here as well.

Emotion Contagion can feel completely automatic – as if it somehow happens to you – but Emotion Contagion is something you learn how to do as a social animal.

In the academic realm, there’s a great deal of debate about the concept of Emotion Contagion and its relationship to empathy, because some researchers argue that Emotion Contagion in and of itself is not empathic – and in fact may be anti-empathic. Let’s look at this idea.

The sometimes anti-empathic aspect of strong Emotion Contagion

In research performed by German psychologist Doris Bischof-Köhler, babies and toddlers play alongside researchers with either teddy bears or spoons. In this study, the experimenter’s teddy or spoon is rigged to break – which causes the experimenter to act distressed and to cry. Bischof-Köhler carefully watches what happens next.

If the child notices the distress and cries alongside the distressed experimenter, Bischof-Köhler does not consider this to be empathy. Rather, she calls this example of Emotion Contagion self-centered, because the child merely becomes wrapped up in his or her own distress.

It is only when the child offers some form of consolation (patting the experimenter, trying to fix the teddy or the spoon, or offering his or her own teddy or spoon to the experimenter) that Bischof-Köhler considers the child to have developed true empathy.

This action-based definition of empathy is currently argued about in empathy research – and some researchers want to roll back the definition of empathy to include only Emotion Contagion (in everyday English, the consoling actions Bischof-Köhler wants to see in her babies would be called compassion and not empathy). I understand these reservations, because it’s very helpful to make clear separations between the different aspects of empathy.

However, I find this action component of empathy to be extremely important, and it’s something we focus on throughout The Art of Empathy.

Here’s why: If your experience of empathy is primarily unregulated Emotion Contagion, where you act as an emotional sponge to the point where you become overwhelmed by the emotions of others, you’ll probably be unable to provide much support to them. You’ll be like the children in the experiment who dissolve into the emotions of the researcher, and can neither soothe themselves nor offer any support. You’ll shut down.

It may also be difficult for you to take the perspective of others if they are a continual source of emotional discomfort for you; therefore, your ability to engage perceptively may be reduced.

Too much empathy is just as much trouble as too little, and if you experience strong Emotion Contagion, hyper-empathy, and emotional sponging that is very uncomfortable for you, you can focus on increasing your capacity to identify, understand, and work with your own emotional states and emotions (specifically, you can develop your skills in Empathic Accuracy and Emotion Regulation).

Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill

Emotions are tools for cognition and relationships, and learning to understand them, welcome them, and work with them skillfully is a key to developing strong and healthy empathy.

However, our emotional education tends to be very poor – to the extent that many people are afraid of emotions and actually try to avoid them altogether. This makes developing empathic skills very difficult!

Most of us have been trained to view and approach emotions in a way that makes Emotion Contagion almost toxic – not because emotions are toxic, but because our training is so backward and unhelpful. We’re actually trained to be emotionally avoidant and therefore empathically unskilled. Therefore, if our Emotion Contagion abilities are naturally strong, we can experience a great deal of discomfort simply because we have no idea how to work with the emotions we feel and perceive.

If your current empathic condition is primarily one of uncomfortable Emotion Contagion, The Art of Empathy will help you learn to identify and work with emotions as tools so that you can become grounded in and comfortable with them. With this empathic emotional grounding, you’ll be able to have a fuller and healthier experience of empathy instead of being stuck in an uncomfortable and unworkable level of Emotion Contagion.

On the other hand, if your current capacity for Emotion Contagion is very low, I’ll teach you a new way to approach emotions and to clearly identify them as essential parts of your ability to think, understand your world, and engage skillfully with yourself and others.

If your Emotion Contagion skills are not strong

Why could your capacity for Emotion Contagion be low? There are many possible reasons, but the ones that I’ve seen most often are:

  1. Sensory hyper-awareness that is overwhelming and leads a person to turn inward and reduce their receptivity as a form of protection (this is true for many people on the Autism Spectrum);
  2. Early childhood experiences with depressed and disengaged caretakers who didn’t give the child enough chances to see and interact with a full range of emotions (I explore this in Chapter 9 of The Art of Empathy);
  3. Early childhood experiences of (or extended periods of contact with) emotionally explosive or abusive people, such that the person learns to turns away from (or distrust) emotions in order to survive.

If you experienced any of these situations, The Art of Empathy will support you in retrieving and rebuilding your empathic capacities in a way that is understandable, accessible, and reliable for you – however, you may also benefit from the support of a trusted counselor or therapist.

The capacity to experience the full range of emotions (inside yourself and with others) is your birthright, and you can do a great deal to retrieve this empathic capacity no matter what kind of obstructions you’ve experienced.

And of course, engaging with your artistic, literary, and philosophical Einfühlung capacities will help you explore your emotional and empathic skills in intentional and self-expanding ways.

Emotions are tools for us, and they’re wonderful tools at that. Learning to work with emotions skillfully is essential for your empathic health and well being.

This website contains a great deal of information about emotions and empathic skills (see my Start Here page) to help you become a happy and healthy empathic presence in a world that needs you.

Thank you for bringing your unique empathic artistry to our waiting world!

In Part 2: Empathic Accuracy

9 Responses

  1. Lisa Welsher
    | Reply

    We are doing our “deep dive” into the Six Aspects of Empathy now and while I embraced them during my initial read, some questions are now emerging as I’m studying them more carefully. In particular, I’m struggling a bit with “Emotion Contagion” – specifically the word “contagion.” I seem to want to call it “detection”, (or “recognition”, “identification”, etc…) rather than “contagion” and I’m wondering if my thought process is flawed…

    Let’s say someone else enters the room in the obvious mood state of Worry & Anxiety… I completely understand the importance of being able to “sense that an emotion is occurring – or that an emotion is expected of you” as an essential part of being able to respond empathically. But my instinct is telling me I want to be able to “detect” the other’s emotion without necessarily having their emotion “infect” me– thus my resistance to the word “contagion.”

    Does the emotion of the other have to actually be felt (you are “infected”) in order for someone to be able to respond empathically? In other words, when working with a co-worker or with a family member who routinely operates in the mood or intense state of emotions such as Anger, Jealousy or Anxiety & Worry (or for that matter any of the emotions)– do you actually have to feel these emotions with them (as opposed to “detecting” them with the help of Emotion Accuracy and Emotion Regulation) in order to be able to response empathically?

    I know you are working on your thesis and if you are unable to respond – no pressure! Thank you!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Lisa — yes, contagion is a strange word, but I lifted it from the research. Five of the titles of my six aspects come directly from the research; my work was to organize them in the order in which they occur, and to provide a step-by-step model of how empathy works (and how it doesn’t). The only original terminology is in aspect 6: Perceptive Engagement is mine, and I changed it from the research-based descriptions consolation and targeted helping, because those just don’t explain the culminating act of empathy in enough detail.

      However, I understand the reasoning behind both terms being action-based, because in research, you’ve got to see an action in order to know if the subjects have done something empathic.

      Another term for Perceptive Engagement would be compassion.

      About contagion — yes, in many cases, it’s simply detection; however, that is not a simple act. We’ve got to know enough about the emotion, and have enough experiences of it to understand how it feels and what it means. Even so, many people see an emotion in another and don’t do proper Perspective Taking — they superimpose their emotional skills and understanding onto the other person, and make unsupportable assumptions about what is occurring (the secret is to ask the other person what that emotion means for and to them).

      Additionally, we’re such mimicry-based primates that we actually do bring the emotional states of others into our bodies so that we can comprehend them. This is lovely in the case of laughter and all of the happiness based emotions (unless it’s socially inappropriate to laugh, and then it’s a problem), and it’s great for the fears when we’re engaging with scary fiction or when another person’s fear helps us leap into action, and for the sadness when we’re engaging with sad fiction or when we’re collectively mourning, and for the angers when we’re engaging with injustice-based fiction or group displays of protest against injustice.

      When people protest against the idea of sharing emotions, the emotions are usually anxiety, anger, and grief that are felt when they have not agreed to share them. So it’s a boundary issue, but in many cases, it’s also a valencing issue. Also, in the case of hyper-empaths, who have very highly developed capacity for Emotion Contagion, there’s not really a choice about whether to feel the emotions in the room or not — until a person learns to work skillfully with each of the other five aspects of healthy empathy.

      Beyond becoming very articulate about emotions, and developing a practice for each emotion, I think the most important thing for hyper-empaths to develop is Perspective Taking — and to understand the difference between self and other. Generally, we do, but when an emotion we don’t enjoy, or for which we have no practice, is in the room, often we will lose our capacity to maintain composure and separateness: Emotion Contagion will be the central activity, and if the emotion is one we have trouble with, then our skills may disappear.

      It’s a big old learning curve. I’m also thinking sociologically today about power differentials, in terms of which kind of person at what social location is acceptable to us (in terms of Emotion Contagion) and which would be unacceptable. I gotta think about that!

      • Elle
        | Reply

        After doing some research online on/about the subject of Empathy, I feel so incredibly grateful to have found you .As I begin to dive into your work—-writing/stories/articles/blogs, they are truly, ‘works of art’ Karla! I have only scratched the surface, and hunger for more.

        I too am an Empath, and have struggled immensely with, “you’re just too sensitive/too intense/too passionate. Chill out/relax/calm down”. After I have tried to share with someone my thoughts, feelings and opinions regarding what I observed in any situation or individual~90% of the time I have been accurate and it has come full circle—-“gee you were right”. Problem is—-I don’t want to be right—-I want the situation to turn out right, whatever it was~

        Anyway….when you responded above you shared:
        “…we actually do bring the emotional states of others into our bodies so that we can comprehend them.”
        It actually happens scientifically ‘IN’ our brain, and has a name, “Mirror Neurons” (fascinating study!)
        So using the word ‘contagion’ is fitting, because it’s happening INside of us!

        Thank You again Karla, truly eye opening 🙂

        • Karla
          | Reply

          Hello Elle, and welcome!

          About mirror neurons — I did study them for the book, but I’ve moved away from them. I know that they’re an intense area of interest right now, but something doesn’t sit right, and I don’t think the hypothesis is firmly grounded in human neurology. There is also a lot of critical discussion about them in neurology, including a book called The Myth of Mirror Neurons. I’m taking a very “wait and see” stance with them, and I don’t actually require them for my work to proceed, so whew!

  2. Lisa Welsher
    | Reply

    Thank you once again for the additional insights Karla! Very helpful!

  3. Mary Loughran
    | Reply

    I understood that you have “The Art Of Empathy” on a CD. I haven’t been able to find it. Can you refer me to a source where I can purchasd this CD?
    Thanking you in advance, Mary

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Mary — the audio learning program versions are available on this site, and at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers. They’re
      available in CD or downloadable MP3 format: The Art of Empathy page.

  4. patricia
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, I think I may have that tendency you described as the enmeshed runaway healing. It is so hard for me to listen to others, especially if they are complaining about something.I feel a certain pressure to resolve.I also feel a near immediate irritation, causing me to be kind of impatient.Could it be that my many years in customer service has impacted my personality? I find it near impossible to just be empathetic without my own involvement.I find I am shying away from social involvement due to this terrible feeling I walk away with.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Patricia!

      This sounds a bit like empathic burnout, and yes, many years in customer service can lead to this result. In the book, I suggest boundary-setting and grounding for overwhelmed people, and also a practice called Conscious Complaining with a Partner, so that you can have practice simply listening and supporting a person’s complaining without needing to find a solution or even think about an answer. It’s a wonderful relief!

      If you’re feeling irritated or pressured around people, certainly take some time off. But also consider that you may simply be a highly empathic and sensitive person who takes in a lot. You may need to find a way to express as much as you receive. This post may be supportive in that vein: Art is a specific empathic healing practice

      I hope that’s helpful!

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