The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, Part 6: Perceptive Engagement

Perceptive Engagement!

Perceptive Engagement can be considered the pinnacle of your empathic skills, because it relies upon your first five aspects of empathy and helps you connect with others in truly supportive and workable ways.

So far, we’ve looked at the first five of your Six Essential Aspects of Empathy. Today, we’ll look at the culminating aspect, which occurs when all of the aspects work together to help you engage empathically and perceptively.

Let’s revisit the six aspects so that we can understand how Perceptive Engagement is achieved:

  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.
  3. Emotion Regulation: In order to be an effective empath, you’ve got to develop the ability 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 – your sensitive concern will help you engage with them in a way that displays your care and compassion.
  6. Perceptive Engagement: This skill 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.

This excerpt is from Chapter 2 in The Art of Empathy:

Understanding Perceptive Engagement

In empathy research, the aspect that I’m renaming Perceptive Engagement is often called targeted helping[1] or consolation. In general, empathy researchers focus a great deal of attention on empathy as an active and obvious response to pain or need. However, this focus unnecessarily reduces our understanding of the totality of empathic responses.

Empathic responses are just as likely in situations of joy, laughter, and a lack of need as they are in troubling or consolation-requiring situations. Empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill, and empathically skilled people work with all emotions – not just the seemingly painful ones.

It’s just as empathic to laugh and joke with someone as it is to offer them a shoulder to cry on. Empathy is about perceptive emotional interaction and engagement; it’s not just restricted to helping or consolation.

In renaming this aspect of empathy, I also chose the word engagement carefully, because many empathy researchers focus primarily on action as a sign of empathy. This makes sense in a testing environment where you have to chart observable, action-based behaviors. But in the real world of empathic interactions, this action focus can be very misleading.

In many situations, it’s actually more empathic not to act or not to notice the pain of others (if they’re signaling that they want to be left alone) than it is to make a great show of being outwardly consoling.

In truly perceptive engagement, the choices you make are not about what would work for you (or what would make you look most empathic!) – they’re about the needs of the other. And sometimes, others need to be unseen, untouched, and undisturbed.

Sometimes, the most empathic response is to do nothing, to look away, and to ignore people (if that’s what would comfort them the most).

And yet action-based research can tell us very useful things about the development of empathy.

The difference between generosity and empathy

In a wonderful experiment[2] done with toddlers, UC Berkeley psychology researcher Allison Gopnik placed an adult and a toddler at a table with two bowls of food between them. One bowl contained Goldfish crackers, which the children loved, and the other contained raw broccoli (which the vast majority of the children did not love).

In order to determine whether the toddlers had developed perceptive and targeted helping skills, Gopnik asked the adult to mime strong distaste for the crackers, and strong yummy love for the broccoli, and then ask the child to share some food.

At a certain stage in their development, the toddlers will offer the Goldfish crackers to the adult, perhaps because they find the crackers delicious, and therefore think everyone should want some. And while offering the Goldfish is very generous (since the children love them), it is not empathically perceptive.

Surprisingly, Gopnik calls the giving of crackers a selfish and egocentric act, and not a fully empathic one, because it’s only when the child understands that the adult has entirely different needs that he or she can be seen as truly empathically aware.

I was fascinated to see that, in Gopnik’s study, the age at which children offered broccoli to the experimenter was around eighteen months – which would suggest that babies develop the capacity for the most advanced aspect of our six-part empathy model even before they can speak full sentences. We humans are a naturally empathic species.

How to engage empathically

In Perceptive Engagement, you listen and watch carefully for what another wants and needs, and to the extent that you are able, you interact based upon those wants and needs (or, sometimes, you don’t interact at all if that’s what would work best for them).

Perceptive Engagement is the culmination of the previous five aspects of the empathic process. In order to engage perceptively, you have to be able to share emotions, accurately identify them, regulate them in yourself, take the perspective of others, be concerned enough to want to engage, and finally, to engage from an unselfish position of empathic knowledge of the other.

That sounds like an incredibly complicated process, but we’ve all done it since early childhood, and we continue to do it every day – at home, at work, with animals, in e-mails, at the store, when we drive, when we walk down the street, and when we use our Einfühlung capacities to interact with art, literature, and music, etc.

We’re all in constant empathic contact with each other and with the nonhuman world. It’s important to remember this. We humans are an actively empathic species, and though our empathy is often troubled, hyperactive, or seemingly absent, empathy is the nonverbal language we all speak fluently.


[1] de Waal, F. (2009). The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York, NY: Harmony.

[2] “Studies examining children’s concern for others had previously focused on babies’ sensitivities to people in distress. At the University of California, Berkeley, researcher Alison Gopnik wanted to find out when children discover that other people feel differently than they do — a prerequisite for empathy…. This ability to acknowledge other people’s feelings — even when they differ from your own — is essential to understanding when (and how) people want to be comforted. “To become truly empathic,” Gopnik says, “you have to say not just ‘I feel your pain,’ but ‘I feel your pain, and I know it’s not my own. I should be helping you, not myself.'” From Whyte, J.E. The Emergence of Empathy in Babies.


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