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Empathy – Are other people’s emotions contagious?

By July 21, 2016Uncategorized

New research on emotions and implications for coaching and mentoring

empathy 900Recent research into the development of the brain and so called “neuroplasticity” suggests that specific neurons (brain cells) are responsible for enabling us to read and “experience” other people’s emotions.  Mirror neurons, as they are called, may be triggered by seeing and hearing the emotional responses of others.  This in turn may enable us to experience some of what others are feeling.  This response is thought to have an advantage in social groupings.  Such understanding has potential impacts on our understanding of how we help others.  When we listen, respond and support others, our neural networks may be being triggered and our responses may fall into four areas:

Emotional Contagion –  this is where we pick up the emotional state of others, but cannot distinguish between what they are feeling and what we are feeling.  In other words there is a confusion of who’s feelings are being felt.  In this state I am very unlikely to be listening well  and may respond in ways that make that might cause greater emotional disturbance in another.

Empathy – in this instance we are noticing the signlas of emotions in others and these signals trigger emotional responses in ourselves.  However we are conscious of the distinction between our emotions and the other person’s eg my husband’s anxiety in a busy shopping centre.  I have entered into what’s referred to as affective resonance.  I am not however yet acting to support him, but I have some idea of the emotions he is potentially feeling, based on mirror neurons triggering sympathetic circuitry*

Compassion – in this situation I am aware of another person’s emotional distress, but emotionally I respond with warmth and care. I think  “I’m ok, but the other person is upset”.  I also move now to an altruistic motivation…”what can I do to support him?”.   This according to Tania Singer is compassion.

Cognitive Awareness – This response is cognitive and conceptual. IN other words I am aware that another person is upset because I am picking up the verbal and non-verbal cues, however I don’t feel that upset nor do I feel warmth towards them, I just know cognitively that something is going on for that person.  I may then choose to respond in a way that is helping, eg taking that person’s hand, saying something calming to them, or I may choose not to.

Research by Tania Singer and her team show that different groups of neurons are involved in each of these types of response, in very  different parts of the brain.

Neuroscientists are now fascinated by the implications for this type of research in coaching, learning, teaching and health care.

Perhaps you can recall situations where you were responded to in each of these different ways?  How did it feel?  How did it help or hinder?

Effective coaching seems to rest in large part on the relationship between coach and coachee.(Whitmore, Covey, Thomas, Landsberg, Downey),.   It’s the qualities of this relationship that determine the levels of trust that exist, and in turn the degree to which people will take risks in the conversation and in their teaching or leadership practice.   With this in mind, this classification of responses to other people’s emotions might be deemed critical in building trust and agency in the coaching process.

Questions for reflection

What are the implications for you and your support of others here?  Consider this personally and professionally?

How could this information support the development of coaches and leaders in your setting?

Further information:

Emotional Intelligence for Coaches:  An online learning opportunity for coaches and mentors.  Learn online with dynamic content and live webinars with Will Thomas.  Here is the missing link in coaching practice…how we manage ourselves in the coaching relationship, so we can cut out any interference in the process of empowering others.  For more information on this  6 session programme please email

Ref:  Matthieu Ricard, Alturism (2013)