The 3 Degrees of Empathy

Note: Read this if you struggle with understanding other people. This piece is for people trying to better understand empathy and develop their emotional IQ.

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed professional. Any advice listed is based on my personal experiences and methods that have worked for me personally, and my circle of friends and family.

My "thinker" friends who often struggle with understanding the foreign and abstract concept of empathy have often asked me to explain and break it down for them into digestible pieces. Although being empathetic comes naturally to me personally, I wanted to create a logical set of steps that strong thinkers could take in order to get in the right mindset to exercise empathy. Understanding the nuances of empathy can be learned and practiced after understanding what I consider the fundamentals. These fundamentals are the best way that I can explain how my brain works to systematically categorize empathy by drawing upon a series of steps, visual metaphors, and thought processes. I came up with I call the "Three Degrees of Empathy" (keep in mind that this concept might already be an existing thing that I'm not aware of) as a helpful way to understand myself, my actions, and how they affect other people. Before I speak or act, I try to follow the three degrees of empathy and, so far, it's been pretty smooth.

First, let's start off with why empathy is important.

Benefits of understanding empathy:

  1. Your personal and professional relationships will run much more smoothly, and feel much easier to maintain.
  2. You won't feel frustrated from not understanding others who don't share the same ideas or values as you.
  3. Less time focused on misunderstanding or fighting will mean more time spent on accomplishing tasks.
  4. Your message won't offend others or be misconstrued unintentionally.
  5. You won't feel as misunderstood by others.
  6. You'll feel like people understand you better.

First Degree: The Self

Before you can explore empathy, one of the first things to understanding it is to first understand how you personally feel about something that happened to you because how can you even begin to understand and know others if you don't know yourself? I can't tell you how many times I've spoken to my thinker friends after I've asked them, "What made you so mad?" to which they've struggled to give me a firm answer. I totally get it, for some thinkers, their feelings might feel foreign to them -- it's like their emotional psyche is this large, endless ocean surrounding them and the depths are either unknown or unexplored. Everything they physically feel is fluid and difficult to separate and categorize neatly, and hard logic is their life buoy. Hard logic allows thinkers to feel stable when they're awash with uncertain feelings, and learning empathy is like learning how to swim and navigate these waters comfortably. Now I'm not saying you should make decisions completely devoid of logic without a buoy, but I'm encouraging you to address your emotions with the same care and tact you would with your head.

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A good way to start thinking about your own feelings is by asking yourself, "How do I personally feel about something?" and then answering brutally honestly. If you try to lie and convince yourself that "the situation isn't that bad," or (on the opposite end of the spectrum) tell yourself that it's worse than it really is, you're cheating yourself from real progress or development. Always answer honestly. I mean, you might be able to bullshit other people, but bullshitting yourself is really just a disservice. If I ever struggle with answering this particularly vague question, I try to start with specific yes/no, this/that/both, or questions that would require factual two to three answer choices like this:

  • Did someone violate my values? (Yes/No)
  • Does this situation make me feel unsure? (Yes/No)
  • Is there a larger issue that I'm bothered by, but am refusing to address? (Yes/No)
  • Am I mad at someone, or am I mad at myself? (This/That/Both)
  • Who pissed me off? (Factual)

Starting with questions that have a finite choice of absolute answers puts thinkers, in my opinion, at ease because they thrive on categorizing things into "black and white" scenarios. Thinking processes are simplified, organized, streamlined, and easily defined when starting out this way. Obviously the range of questions will vary depending on your unique situation, but as soon as you can narrow down what exactly is bugging you, understanding the reasons impacting your emotions will actually help you create a clearer, effective solution that'll help you achieve internal resolve, long-term happiness, and a sense of peace. Don't make the mistake of making just external-environmental or behavioral changes without investing in internal resolve -- you'll end up bottling up your feelings and convincing yourself that your choices were rational and make total sense (which they probably do on paper, but inside you'll still probably feel like shit and wonder why you feel the same or have the same emotional outcome despite you making environmental or behavioral changes).


After you've narrowed down what that is bothering you, ask yourself why that bothers you, and to what degree. That way, you can fashion a reasonable response to your situation. If you can peg down exactly what is bothering you and why, coming up with a solution to resolve it is much easier and quicker.

I mean, think about it: it's like a bride trying to buy a wedding dress. How the hell are you supposed to find a perfect dream dress tailored to your exact tastes if you don't even know what your tastes are? You might just keep taking random, non-targeted shots in the dark until you find one that "feels right." But wouldn't you rather come up with a series of intentional questions that help you come to a conclusion much quicker? Then you'll be economical with the educated choices you make and find the perfect dress faster. People often assume that grappling with emotional stress will get in the way of living an efficient life, but I guarantee that developing emotional awareness will help you run your life much more efficiently.


My point: take the time to reflect, answer internal questions truthfully, and you'll become a master at crafting a longterm solution to your problem that will make you feel at ease inside.

From start to finish, here is an actual personal example of my internal process to understanding my feelings, and then taking the proper action to fix it properly. In bold are the types of questions I asked myself like in the examples above, and in parentheses are the answers:

  1. I'm pissed off about my day.
  2. I have no idea why because my job isn't really all that stressful.
  3. Ok, well let's go through my day step by step.
  4. At which point in my day did I start getting stressed? Morning? Afternoon? (Morning.)
  5. Ok, so I had a meeting in the morning.
  6. Who was in that meeting? (My boss, my coworker, myself)
  7. Ok, we talked about projects. My boss had told me some feedback that I wasn't happy with.
  8. What part of the feedback didn't I like? (He said, "Your presentation isn't where it should be. It's all wrong.")
  9. Ok, that's fair.
  10. Did his message or tone bother me? (His tone.)
  11. Why did it bother me? (It came off condescending, and it felt like he was assuming that my work ethic was lazy and produced low-quality work despite me putting in 100% effort and many hours of my time.)
  12. Am I being sensitive or reasonable? (I'm being sensitive.)
  13. Ok, so basically I took it the wrong way. It wasn't meant to be taken the wrong way, so I should be understanding and realize that probably wasn't what he meant. He probably just meant that it wasn't what he had envisioned, and was tactless with his tone. So don't take it so personally, and move on. I'm making an issue out of thin air for no reason.

It seems like a lot on paper, but this internal review can take me a matter of seconds to process in my mind. However, I wanted to break it down granularly so people could easily understand the types of questions I ask myself, the order in which I ask them to narrow down my choices, and how I use these questions to come to a resolve that helps me put together a series of actionable steps if required.

Second Degree: The Direct Other

After you're able to understand the intricacies of understanding your own feelings, most of the work is pretty much done. Because you understand clearly how other peoples' actions affect you, understanding how your own actions affect others are much easier. And when you understand how you affect other people, you'll find yourself in fewer misunderstandings. Fewer misunderstandings and better relationships mean running a smoother life. A good way to start thinking about other people is to ask, "How would another person feel if I did or acted a certain way?"

Here are some questions/statements that are not helpful to understanding others:

  • I don't get why [person's name] is upset.
  • I don't see why [person's name] should be bothered by this.
  • It's really not a big deal.
  • [Person's name] is just sensitive.
  • I didn't do or say anything wrong.
  • [Person's name] took it the wrong way.

Why are these not helpful? Because these questions only run within the context of your very specific opinions, experiences, and values. And guess what? The longer you stay there, the more disharmony there will be. The problem won't get resolved because you're stuck in your own world.

Here are some questions/statements that are helpful to understanding others:

  • Which of my words or actions upset [person's name]?
  • What are [person's name] values? What does he/she hold dear?
  • Does [person's name] feel like I violated one of their values?
  • Because this may not be a big deal to me, doesn't always mean it's not a big deal to everyone.
  • Because this is a big deal to me, doesn't mean it's always a big deal to everyone.
  • Did I offend [person's name] regardless of whether or not my intentions were good?
  • Did I accidentally imply something through my words or actions?
  • Was I being tactless or accidentally insensitive?

By asking yourself these questions, you're not just putting yourself in that other person's situation. Substituting yourself into that person's situation is not enough; we've been taught to believe the age-old statement, "put yourself in another person's shoes." This implies that you -- with your specific opinions, values, mindset, and experiences -- should step into a person's situation and react as yourself living those moments. Don't do this because it doesn't provide any new insight into how another person might feel. Instead, try on another person's opinions, values, experiences, and mindset on for size and see it from their perspective. Think of it like viewing the world behind colored eye glasses -- look at the world filtered through their perspective, beliefs, personal values, morals, ethics, and experiences and then put yourself in that situation to really understand how someone else thinks.


Try this exercise:

  1. Imagine yourself -- with your current mood, values, beliefs, and experiences -- at work and your boss very matter of factly but coldly chews you out in front of a whole staff about how your work is subpar. How do you feel? Maybe that criticism wouldn't bother you, so you assume that that shouldn't bother anyone else. Or maybe you feel like crap. Whatever you feel, remember that.
  2. Now imagine you're a scared six year-old in this situation. Imagine how much bigger and scarier adults might seem to you at this age, or how "being in the spotlight" might feel for a six year-old. Maybe you don't understand what your peers are talking about in this situation or some of the vocabulary they're using. Would you feel any differently?
  3. If you do feel differently, then congratulations: you just experienced empathy. You were able to put yourself into the mindset of someone with different experiences and perspective to understand how they might feel independently from how you might feel.

After you learn to immerse yourself into someone else's perspective, you can start asking yourself questions from the first degree of empathy section to understand exactly what someone feels and why. Then after, you'll be able to make a much more highly educated guess on how to tailor a resolution for any situation.

Third Degree: The Other's Other

So now that you've become a master at understanding and resolving your own feelings, and then have effectively addressed relational mishaps between yourself and other parties, now comes the rarely thought of "third degree of thinking." This type of emotional awareness focuses on how your actions affect another party's party. Confusing, I know. A simple way to start thinking about this is by asking yourself, "How would my actions affect the other person's circle -- like their mother, father, siblings, friends, or colleagues?"

By realizing that our actions are not exclusive to A-B interactions and that there are plenty other people that we don't directly interact with, you'll develop a much more expansive understanding of how your actions not only affect someone directly but how they cause ripples in other areas of life that are less thought about. Understanding the third degree of empathy is pretty much like the second degree, except you put yourself into the shoes of the other's other.

Let's pretend for a second in this scenario:

Derek made a lighthearted joke about the way Katie gained a little weight after the holidays. It wasn't ill-intentioned, and he didn't understand why she was so upset over a such a small comment. After all, they joke around and poke fun at each other all the time. Katie should just get over it, right?

Now pretend you're Katie's mother:

Why is Katie crying? I love my daughter and want her to be happy but she isn't. She won't eat, won't come out of her room, and just cries every now and then without reason. This stressing me out because I can't help her.

It’s important to realize that the world does not revolve around us. What we do creates a framework or network that extends beyond ourselves. If more people practiced this type of thinking, the world would probably be a more bitchin' place to live.

When you expand your perspective to extend beyond your own, you become more present, aware of your surroundings, your place within the world, and stuff just feels easy.

Here's a short summary:

First Degree: The Self
Ask yourself questions with absolute answers to narrow down what is bothering you.
Ask yourself why it bothers you.

Second Degree: The Other
Put on someone else's "eye glasses" on for size.

Third Degree: The Other's Other
Put on the other's other's "eye glasses" on for size.