Acknowledges the experience of the learnerAn ability to be empatheticCommunication meaningfully with othersSkill to work with empathy in a way that allows others to learn from the experience

Developing ourselves in the 6 stages of empathy

Introduction: As a follow-up of the article in this competence “The 6 Stages of Empathy” this article gives some ideas of how we can develop ourselves in each of the 6 stages, including:

Emotion Contagion

Empathic Accuracy

Emotion Regulation

Concern for Others

Perspective Taking

Perceptive Engagement

It is recommended to first read the above-mentioned article which contains a more detailed explanation of each of these stages, and then this one which is focused more on suggestions of how to improve in each of the stages.

Why did I choose this tool? I loved the way that Karla McLaren organized the stages of empathy, and to me it makes a lot of sense to look at it in this way and to use these stages as the basis for understanding and working with empathy. Through this information, I have understood that what I originally thought was all there was to empathy (emotional contagion) can actually be the first of many steps of an effective empathic response. I also realized that while ‘emotional contagion’ is something that happens very easily and quickly with me, the next step of ‘emotion regulation’ is something that I struggle with and I can focus on getting better at.

How does this apply to being a trainer?
Since the basis of the criteria this article is written for is “skill to work with empathy in a way that allows others to learn from the experience” it is essential to break down empathy into different stages and thoroughly understand each stage. For instance, we might be really good at the first few stages, emotional contagion, empathic accuracy and emotional regulation, but unless we can excel in all of them especially the last 3, concern for others, perspective taking and perceptive engagement, all of our empathy will be of little use to the learners.

Main content:

  1. Emotion Contagion

Emotion contagion happens when someone feels the emotion of someone else (or of a group of people). Most people’s definition of empathy is actually just the emotion contagion part, the ability to feel someone’s else’s emotions.

What can be done to improve ourselves in the area of emotional contagion?

  • Work on accepting your own emotions, regardless of whether you consider them to be negative or positive, instead of shutting them down or running away from them
  • Observe people as much as you can, their body language, tone of voice, how they hold themselves, and what they are trying to express (particularly in a non-verbal way as this is usually where the real emotions will come through)
  • Focus on feeling instead of analyzing. For instance, instead of thinking “this person looks like they are angry” just observe them and see what your gut feeling is telling you about their emotional state.
  • Don’t block or run away from the emotions of others, but allow them to be felt and expressed. Don’t be quick to say “don’t be sad” or “don’t be angry” or worse yet “don’t be emotional”. These kinds of responses show discomfort with emotions and are usually expressed by someone who is not yet skilled and comfortable in the emotional realm. Sometimes the acceptance of an uncomfortable emotion, by the person who is feeling it and those around them, is enough to let the emotion take it’s natural course and dissolve on its own. Rejection of them only bottles it up, mixes with other negative emotions, increases its intensity and eventual outburst (or inburst). Don’t repress, express.
  1. Empathic Accuracy

So, you picked up on an emotion from someone else through emotion contagion, but what is it exactly? Is it happiness? Fear? Guilt? Curiosity? If you have empathic accuracy, you will be able to determine not only what emotion it is, but also its intensity.

  • After you have observed someone, try to guess how they might be feeling. Then ask them what they are feeling, and compare their answer to your assumption. Was it accurate or not? If not, why not? Could it be that you were projecting some of your own feelings onto them? Make a note not to do that next time, and try again. When you realize you’re starting to get good at this, instead of asking them how they are feeling say your guess out loud. “Are you feeling……..”? If you are generally getting a YES, it’s a pretty good indication that you are improving in emotional accuracy.
  • If it’s not always possible to practice with real people, you can always observe characters in movies or series. The actors, particularly the good ones, are trained to get into and portray actual emotions. The reason for this is that when the expression of an emotion is genuine and strong, we naturally feel it too. Try to predict how they might be feeling through their facial expression and body language, before they actually express it or it becomes obvious. Then see if it was a correct prediction by observing what happens afterwards (for example, if you predicted that they were angry, and they went off and beat someone up, you were probably right).

2. Emotion Regulation

Being able to regulate emotions is so important, especially if you are someone who feels every emotion very intensely and also experiences a lot of emotion contagion. It can mean knowing how to become calm again when you’re feeling angry, rather than reacting impulsively to the anger. Or sometimes it can mean regulating so that you don’t spend the day in euphoria and ignore all your responsibilities and commitments.

  • Learn how to take emotional distance from a situation/person that is affecting you negatively.
  • Create some strategies for yourself for “changing your state”. It can be moving around, listening to music, repeating some empowering phrases, whatever works to regulate your emotion or even change it from negative to positive.
  • There are some situations when it’s almost impossible to regulate your emotion unless the problem that is causing it is solved. In this case, don’t worry about the emotion itself. Instead just put your energy into solving the problem and when it is solved the emotion will regulate itself.
  • Listen to the message that the emotion is trying to give you (see article “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” in this competence for more details). For instance, the message of anxiety is to prepare for something that will or might happen. If you take the message and prepare as much as you can, the anxiety will regulate itself.

3. Perspective Taking

I see perspective taking as more of the intellectual part of empathy, where you take the emotion that you felt from the other person (and perhaps regulated in yourself so that you still have the ability to think clearly) and you think about what that might mean to them, and what they might be needing at this moment.

  • Ask yourself, what would it be like if I was in their situation?
  • When was the last time I felt that emotion?
  • What was my response to feeling that way?
  • Who was helpful to me during that time?
  • Am I able to really understand what this person is feeling, or am I projecting my own feelings on to them? (If I don’t know the answer, the best thing is to actually ask the person what they think.)

4. Concern for Others

Without this element, all of the stages of empathy above are useless at best and dangerous at worst. Useless because, what’s the point of understanding exactly how someone feels if you don’t care at all about their well-being? And dangerous because, if you have ill intentions and you know exactly how someone feels and how to regulate their emotions, you can use this knowledge to manipulate them into doing things that are not in their best interest.

  • Ask yourself “how do I honestly feel about this person right now”?
  • Am I sure that I have their best interests at heart?
  • Am I committed to using my empathy in a way that will benefit them and not hurt them?
  • Do I have any other feelings related to this person that I need to be aware of (anger, jealousy, envy, mistrust, etc.)
  • If I have any negative feelings towards them, should I back off from the situation a bit until I get my own feelings in perspective?

5. Perceptive Engagement

This is where you put all of the above to good use and do something worthwhile with it. Perceptive engagement is where you understand what that person is feeling, what they need, and you are able to take action to help them to meet that need. It could be anything, or its exact opposite. The defining factor of perceptive engagement is that it is done solely for them and not for ourselves, and it meets the need that they have at that moment.

  • Ask yourself, “what is the most helpful thing I can do for this person right now?” and be open to whatever the answer may be, even if it is to do nothing.
  • Honestly ask the person, what do you need the most from me right now? Is it to listen, to help, to give advice, to give a hug, or just to back off?
  • After you have taken the action that you decided (or that you decided together) was best, ask them again, “was that helpful? how are you feeling now? Is there something more that I can do?”
  • Practice doing this as much as you can, taking the right actions at the right time. Pretty soon it will start coming naturally to you and you will hardly even need to ask what is needed, because you will already know.

Reflection questions:

  1. Emotion Contagion – When was the last time you felt what someone else was feeling? What were the circumstances surrounding it? Was it a positive or negative experience for you?
  2. Empathic Accuracy – When was the last time you estimated how someone else was feeling? Was it accurate? Why or why not?
  3. Emotion Regulation – When was the last time you were able to regulate your emotions, whether they were your own or you picked them up from someone else? Did it help you to do so? Would you do something differently next time?
  4. Perspective Taking – When was the last time you were able to understand something from someone else’s perspective? How did that help the situation?
  5. Concern for Others – When was the last time you were genuinely concerned about someone else, without having any agenda of your own?
  6. Perceptive Engagement – When was the last time you decided to do something (or not to do something) that was specifically based on your understanding of how someone else was feeling? How did it go, was it helpful to them? What would you do differently next time?

Based on your reflections above, think about the following questions:

Which of the above-mentioned 6 areas do I think is my strongest one?

On which area do I need to work the most?

What concrete action I will take this week to improve myself in that area?


Keeping a journal of your experiences and development in empathy can help you to see patterns, trends and development more clearly. You don’t need to write in in every day as this can make the entries more mundane, but definitely take note of the times that feel important or significant and especially when you are filled with emotion. If reflected on these times can turn into significant learning moments that you will want to look back on to further understand yourself and your development over time.

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

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McLaren, K. (2013). The Art of Empathy. Sounds True.

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