How can I build Cognitive Empathy?


How do I build Cognitive Empathy?

Empathy is both a trait and a skill.

Therefore, if you realize that you’re not naturally gifted with it, don’t worry. You can always train yourself to develop empathy.

You can start the process by initially attempting to read others accurately. To do this, you can commence investigating and begin learning cognitive empathy techniques…which balance critical thinking with a heart primed for connection.

What is Cognitive Empathy?

Simply put, Cognitive Empathy is the ability to rationally understand others.

Also known as ‘empathic accuracy’ or ‘perspective taking’, cognitive empathy is the ability to mentally place ourselves in situations we may have never experienced before.

But unlike Emotional Empathy, that relies mostly on drawing upon similar past experiences to understand others’ feelings, cognitive empathy uses intellect, logic, and research skills to place oneself in another person’s shoes … thereby seeing experiences from their unique perspective… without necessarily sharing their emotions.

It requires setting aside our own biases and assumptions to gain insight into their thoughts and perspectives

As an example, if you’ve never experienced the death of a beloved pet, you may not be able to empathize with a friend who has just lost his dog.  

But when drawing upon your cognitive empathy skills, you might study about the effects of grief and loss, or simply listen with full attention to give the support your friend needs.

“Empathy is a special way of coming to know another and yourself.” – Carl R. Rogers

Why is Cognitive Empathy important? 

Cognitive empathy allows you to:

  • Read people … even if you’re not highly intuitive
  • Act appropriately in social situations
  • Take compassionate action where it is appropriate
  • Embrace diversity and differences
  • Communicate and connect better

Without cognitive empathy, you’re likely to:

  • Overlook social cues
  • Annoy, offend or irritate people unintentionally
  • Struggle fitting within social circles
  • Make wrong assumptions
  • Appears as cold and distant

“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” – Meryl Streep

Ways to build Cognitive Empathy

#1. Practice self-awareness

While wishing to understand other people better is an honorable intention, a better starting point is learning to understand oneself.

It has been proven that writing a journal, or producing a video journal helps us become more attuned to our own mental and emotional states.

Try to remember your thoughts and feelings during those times and compare them with your posture, mannerisms, and nonverbal cues.

Do you tend to slouch when you are un-motivated, or smirk, when you feel annoyed?

Another great way to build cognitive empathy is to practice labeling your own feelings whenever you feel off. Then, be aware of how it affects how you speak and move around.

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes” – Carl Jung

#2. Observe non-verbal cues

Practice your cognitive empathy skills by observing the facial expressions of strangers. Also note their hand gestures, body language, and how they avoid or make eye contact.

Is that woman at the next table enjoying her date? She may be smiling, but she keeps rolling her eyes; her hands are balled up in fists; and she is seated as far away from the other person as possible.

Using cognitive empathy, we may observe that the woman is annoyed, or even pissed off, but she is forcing a smile to be polite or to save face.

A fun way to increase cognitive empathy is to study acting, which teaches us to get in the head and heart of another person.

If you would like to delve into non-verbal communication in greater depth, this Workbook on Non-verbal Communication might be useful.

“Nonverbal communication forms a social language that is in many ways richer and more fundamental than our words” – Leonard Mlodinow

#3. Learn the different levels of listening

Adopting cognitive empathy techniques means moving beyond listening to absorbing information. It also involves paying attention to the tone of voice and nonverbal cues.

If you’ve heard someone say, “ I enjoyed that conversation” though they barely said a thing … that was appreciative listening.

Critical and comprehensive listening evaluates, gauges, and analyzes.

Empathic listening, on the other hand, shows concern and builds connection by understanding details and issues from the other person’s perspective. By imagining how you would feel and think in their situation, you can gain a better understanding of their emotions, motivations, and challenges.

To harness your cognitive empathy and listening skills, you may want to start out with these easy active listening exercises.

“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening” Larry King


Although it seems that cognitive empathy is a gift that only a rare few can possess, it’s more like a muscle than can be trained with conscious intention, deliberate action, and consistent practice.

Developing cognitive empathy requires practice and a genuine willingness to understand others. Over time, cognitive empathy can become a natural and valuable aspect of your interpersonal skills.

By honing your cognitive empathy skills, you can foster deeper connections, promote understanding, and navigate social interactions with greater sensitivity and compassion.

When you develop this skill, your life is gradually enriched with a wellspring of knowledge and the cultivation of authentic relationships that will last through the years.

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