functional empathy™

read more

What is empathy?

Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and be sensitive to another person’s feelings, thoughts and actions. This means being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, imagine how they must be feeling in their situation, and how that might be impacting them.

Empathy can be a conscious value you choose in life and work, and  it comes with skills you can acquire and develop. This means that everyone can learn to become empathic in a healthy and functional way.

Empathy: The ability to understand and be sensitive to another person’s feelings, thoughts and actions

Struggling With Empathy

Empathy is at the core of healthy, successful, and joyful life and work environments.

If you are an empath…

Simply being empathic doesn’t always serve you, the people you care about, your team or the organization. For example, when you are an empath, not knowing when and how to use your empathic abilities, or not knowing how to cultivate it in a healthy way, can lead to overwhelm and stress.

  • You might avoid conflict or decisions to spare people’s feelings.
  • You may fail to address underlying problems and mechanisms in your organization, because you don’t want to hurt people.
  • You probably have a lot on your plate and often feel unseen or underappreciated.
  • You might end up pleasing others in order to be accepted, to be liked or feel like you belong.

    If you are less empathically equipped…

    You might experience:

    • you are missing signs, or fail to read between the lines of what people say and need.
    • you might be focused on outcomes and solutions at the expense of positive and fulfilling experiences of the people around you.
    • you might struggle with creating strong relationships that focus on personal/professional growth.


    Functional Empathy™ is a completely new and different way of looking at empathy,  and how to apply it in life, work, and leadership.

    Functional Empathy™ refers to empathy that is applied for a specific activity, purpose, or task, and exists of a particular skill-set that can be learned, practiced and strengthened.

    Empathy in itself is not necessarily functional; it is more like a potential: if you learn to use it well and with purpose, it can become one of your most powerful tools in your role as leader and getting the very best out of people. The same goes for those who are less emphatically gifted: you can learn and cultivate an empathic approach to do the same.

    Functional Empathy™ offers that solution: an approach that can help you adopt empathy as a value, a trait, and a skill, with effectiveness, purpose and a healthy dose of self awareness.

    Different types of empathy

    Empathy is not just a sense of feeling other people’s feelings. Empathy can play a role in your life in different ways, as a value, a trait or a skill. Empathy can show up in functional and dysfunctional ways, and it is up to us to learn how to master the art of Functional Empathy™.

    Empathy can get in your way when you are hindered or negatively affected by other people’s feelings. Or because you are worried about hurting others. Often that originates from a desire to be liked, to belong and to be accepted.

    Functional Empathy™ refers to knowing your values, understanding your traits, and putting your empathic skills to practice when useful and desired, so they serve you and others in a healthy and forward-moving way.

    To start exploring Functional Empathy™, we start with the introduction of three kinds of empathy: Sympathetic Empathy, Intellectual Empathy and Holistic Empathy.

    Each of these types allow you to connect with others in a different way. As you can see in the model, there can be an overlap between these kinds of empathy.

    You might say that a person that is able to combine all three types of empathy is  most capable of applying Functional Empathy™ when leading teams and organizations.

    Sympathetic empathy

    When you embody sympathetic empathy, you are able to feel physically and emotionally what someone else is feeling. This gives you the ability to really feel into what the other is going through, thus feeling empathic towards them because you can share their feelings.

    Sympathetic empathy stems from physical sensations and mirror neurons in the brain. It can support close interpersonal relationships and be quite useful in some aiding professions as well as in friendships, especially when feelings and experiences are shared.

    However, it can be overwhelming or even inappropriate in certain situations and can drain energy and cause drama and stress, especially if not combined with a level of detached involvement that separates your own judgments and interpretations from those of the other.

    Intellectual empathy

    When you embody intellectual empathy, you are able to understand – from a head level – how the other is feeling and what they might be thinking.

    Without actually being able to feel what the other is experiencing, you can understand what they are going through and how they might be experiencing it. Intellectual empathy stems from intellectual understanding and rational thinking. It can help you to motivate others, understand different points of view, negotiate and collaborate.

    However, because it stems from the head, this type of empathy might be disconnected from deeper emotions, limiting you to connect on a ‘feeling’ level, possibly resulting in missing what’s really going on beneath the surface. Simply having that awareness, can already help you to look under the surface more consciously.

    Holistic empathy

    When you have holistic empathic skills, you are able to holistically feel with someone and take the appropriate action.

    You cannot just feel what someone is going through, but you know to apply yourself in a functional and facilitating. Holistic empathy stems from both intellect and emotion, as well as intuition. You take a non-judgmental, holistic approach towards the person and their context, which makes it ideal for interpersonal relationships and leadership professions.

    Therefore, this is the type of empathy that we ideally develop in our lives as a way of leading others and ourselves.

    It can sometimes get in your way when there is a need to push forward your own agenda.

    The starting point

    Although there are more types of empathy, these three in particular give you a starting point to check in with yourself what kind of empathy you are currently skilled at, or would like to develop more of. You might discover that you thought we weren’t empathic, but after reading those first three types, you realize that you actually are. It might just be different from what you thought it meant to be empathic.


    functional empathy™ in all aspects of life

    Functional Empathy™ does not only lead to motivated and empowered employees, it also leads to better overall results in the workspace. Functional Empathy™ isn’t limited to our work environments alone; it has impact on our personal lives, too. Taking the lead in an empathic way can help you become a better partner, friend, parent, you name it. Functional Empathy™ will provide you with the values, traits and skills to use empathy in the most successful and purposeful way.


    Are you a coach, manager or leader? You are invited to join us on LinkedIn.

    Our NEWSLETTER – The Empathy Ambassador – discusses everything Empathy, Empathic Leadership, Empath Realities and Functional Empathy.
    What Functional Empathy™ is

    Why it matters for Leadership & Organizations
    How it applies to both empaths and people struggling to adopt empathy into the way they work
    Learn more about the 8 types on the Functional Empathy™ Scale
    How to start using Functional Empathy™ in your work as a coach, manager or leader.