The ability to understand another’s perspective or opinion is at the core of most successful interpersonal relationships. However, there are two broad strategies to achieve this understanding: perspective-taking and empathic concern. Perspective-taking, or seeing someone’s side, is defined as taking on another’s point of view through the lens of our own personal goals and intentions. Empathic concern or feeling someone’s pain, similar to empathy, is characterized as an emotional response of taking on someone’s hardship. Although each strategy approaches interpersonal work differently, researchers have largely overlooked their key differences.
PERSPECTIVE-TAKING AND EMPATHIC CONCERN
Through a meta-analysis, a quantitative review and integration of multiple studies, researchers (Longmire & Harrison, 2018) explore the key differences between seeing someone’s side (perspective-taking) and feeling their pain (empathic concern). The authors find that perspective-taking and empathic concern are distinct forms of interpersonal learning. To qualify this finding, the authors focus on three main outcomes of these strategies.
First, actor support is described as a desire to share resources and cultivate a bond with a given target. The authors find that although both empathic concern and perspective-taking lead to actor support for a target, they do so in very different ways. By keeping a focus on one’s own goals and intentions, perspective-taking results in actor support when the situation is perceived as cooperative. However, if the situation is seen as competitive between the actor and the target, perspective-taking does not lead to support. Alternatively, by focusing exclusively on the target, empathic concern results in strong social support regardless of the situation.
Second, joint performance represents instances where outcomes impact both the actor and the target. The authors identify empathic concern as a liability and perspective-taking as an asset. For example, consider a negotiation scenario. In this case, a perspective-taking strategy can help to favor one’s own goals, while empathic concern can result in favoritism for the target’s side. When performance is measured based on both the actor and the target’s shared outcome, perspective-taking is the preferred strategy.
Third, results overwhelmingly support the idea that targets prefer and almost always benefit more from empathic concern. Intuitively, the authors argue, these results show that we prefer someone feel our pain rather than see our side.
In understanding the differences between empathic concern and perspective-taking, organizations may need to consider when each approach is desired. To identify the best strategy, the authors suggest reflecting on the purpose of the interpersonal work. If building social support and rapport is needed, the task should be framed cooperatively and more empathetic concern training should be offered. Alternatively, if the goal of the interpersonal work is to problem-solve or develop new creative solutions, a more cognitive perspective-taking approach should be developed.
To further differentiate when each approach may be needed, the authors specify the preferred strategy for managers and employees. From the manager’s perspective, the authors suggest, perspective-taking is the ideal strategy. This is because perspective-taking is associated with the proper and fair distribution of resources, while empathic concern can result in favoritism or bias toward an employee. However, from an employee’s perspective, the authors argue that one should look for someone applying an empathic concern strategy, as this is likely to be more beneficial to the employee.
To help interpersonal work function smoothly, organizations may need to consider the differences between empathic concern and perspective-taking and how to structure tasks to promote a specific strategy.
Longmire, N. H., & Harrison, D. A. (2018). Seeing their side versus feeling their pain: Differential consequences of perspective-taking and empathy at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(8), 894.