Blog – The benefits of ‘Affective Empathy’

Empathy is a word used with common frequency. It is a word that many, especially those who consider themselves caring feel they possess. Not many people would feel shocked by the popular definition of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes. This is commonly termed as Cognitive empathy.  But empathy is not always understood or appreciated in practical terms of how you go from understanding to action that makes a difference.

I am talking about affective empathy here – the ability to respond appropriately to another’s needs. Many people can imagine what it might be like to experience something, but that is often where it stays. Skilled affective empathy takes it further and empowers you to use this insight that you have gained, to ask better questions and action more beneficial and personal outcomes.

Today on Twitter, I came across this news story from the Birmingham Mail that demonstrates this:

‘The parents of premature babies cared for by a neonatal nurse are helping her terminally-ill husband by raising funds for a desperately needed wet room in their home.

The families have come to the aide of lorry driver Pete Clohessey, 63, of Olton, who was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease last year.

Within months of the devastating news he has become reliant on a wheelchair and has to be continuously connected to a breathing aid.

Tracey, 49, a neonatal nurse practitioner at Heartlands Hospital, applied for a disabled facilities grant from Solihull Borough Council, but it was refused.

Now parents whose children were nursed by caring Tracey have joined forces to set up aGoFundMe page to raise the cash for the fixtures and fittings for the facility – with one dad carrying out the building work for free.

“We are both very grateful and humbled by the kindness and generosity shown by friends, family and strangers who have donated to the fund.” Said Tracey

Landlord Adrian Bates, who runs The Olton Tavern, heard about their plight and set up a GoFundMe page to raise £5,000 – with the target being exceeded earlier this month.

Tracey helped to care for Adrian’s daughter Rebecca who was born 17 weeks early weighing in a just 1lbs 6oz – less than a bag of sugar. And even Rebecca, now aged 15, has helped the couple by holding a cake sale – pocketing more than £400 for the fund.

Builder Anthony Coughlan, whose twins Hope and Martha were also nursed by Tracey when they were born early last year, has offered to do the work for free’. (Read more on the story here)

Paying back for kindness shown or affective empathy?

So what does this story demonstrate? Well without a doubt, the kindness, professionalism and care that Tracey has undoubtedly demonstrated in her career has been a significant factor in the choices of these people; we rarely forget who helped us in times of vulnerability. Tracey’s own affective empathy, used skillfully over the years, has enabled that process. But in concentrating on what has happened in response to Tracey’s husband’s illness and challenges,  all these people could have shown excellent cognitive empathy and left it there. Imagining and allowing themselves to experience another’s world, and that would be a great way of truly understanding. However what they did is they went further, they went into the realms of affective empathy whereby they allowed the knowledge that their cognitive empathy had provided them with….what must this really be like….to then respond with action that was fitting to not their needs, but the needs of Tracey and her husband.

The benefit?

Has it changed the illness? No, Motor Neuron Disease is, as Tracey put it, “an evil disease” Has it altered long term prognosis? No, there is no cure as of yet for this illness. But what using affective empathy has done is resulted in practical support and help that really will make a very significant difference to the day to day lives of two people who really needed it. It has shown them that they are not totally alone, and that something that was beyond Tracey and her husbands reach is now being achieved. Change has occurred through skillful use of empathy. Change that may be small, but when so personal, fails to be anything other than hugely significant.

I believe the benefits of affective empathy are great indeed!

To find out more about empathy, its use and how it can support best practice, go to our website

Regional courses can be found here

If your workplace would benefit from empathy training , we can come to you. Please email me on

For more on this story and the original source go to:





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