Intercultural Empathy: A Guide to Real Understanding Across Cultures

Intercultural empathy is one of the key skills needed to develop a real understanding across cultures.

Essentially, it consists of three dimensions:

Cognitive empathy: the ability to put ourselves into the perspective of the other person and imagine how he or she perceives a particular situation

Emotional empathy: the ability to imagine the feelings that the other is feeling in a particular situation while also being able to “feel” these emotions ourselves

Behavioral empathy: the ability to act in a way that shows our understanding of the other person and give him or her the feeling that we care

Cognitive empathy

Let’s say that you are a member of a diverse group which is assigned a certain project. While the discussions are quite alive and productive, there is one group member from an East Asian culture which is always quiet. His name is Keito.

You would like to hear Keito’s input as you know that he has very deep knowledge of the subject, but you simply do not know what the problem is.

Under those circumstances, somebody who has cognitive empathy has the ability to put himself into Keito’s perspective would understand on a cognitive level that Keito is used to a situation where subordinates are expected to remain silent unless specifically asked to speak up.

But while having a cognitive understanding of his reasons behind remaining quiet, you would be unable to understand his emotional situation. Perhaps, you would be left wondering why he doesn’t simply ‘adjust’ himself to the behavior of the group as a whole. Under those circumstances, you will miss the degree of discomfort that he is feeling when faced with the fact that he should simply interrupt the conversation and voice his own opinion.

What this is likely to leave us with is that while we are able to cognitively understand the reasons behind Keito’s behavior, we are unable to respond to it in any meaningful manner. We may understand his reasons for behaving in this particular way, but we do not understand how we can respond in a way that helps him to feel more comfortable.

Emotional empathy

Somebody who has emotional empathy in addition to cognitive empathy would also be possible to understand Keito’s feelings when being faced with this situation.

In this particular example, I would say that Keito is likely to feel in a state of internal conflict. On the one hand, he wants to contribute to the conversation just like all the other group members. On the other hand, he feels like this behavior is inappropriate as it disrupts the harmony of the group.

Although he probably understands that the other group members wouldn’t feel this way and, in fact, expect him to contribute, this is in conflict with his own cultural conditioning.

Often, we are able to understand somebody’s situation on a cognitive level, but we simply can not understand what he or she feeling or why he or she is going through these feelings.

In those circumstances, we are unlikely to have the necessary motivation or ability to take action in a way that will help to resolve the problems of the other person.

Behavioral empathy 

Somebody who has behavioral empathy will be able to adjust his behavior in a way to adjust himself to the needs and feelings of the other person.

But, somebody who only has behavioral empathy, but lacks the ability to understand the other person on a cognitive- or emotional level, will adjust his behavior in a way that will lead to results that are either not making the situation better, or making it worse than it was before.

For instance, somebody might decide to call out to Keito in the group by asking him why he is not contributing actively within the group environment. Since he is singling Keito out in the group, something which is commonly not done in a collective work environment, his emotional state will only get worse as a result of this behavior.

Consequently, in order to develop a degree of intercultural empathy that really helps us to not only understand, but also adjust our behavior according to the emotional situation of the other person, we need to develop all three skills: cognitive, emotional and behavioral empathy.

So, what steps can you take to become more interculturally empathetic?

When we try to develop our skills in intercultural empathy, we need to work on all of its three dimensions at the same time.

Firstly, we need to be able to understand the values, beliefs and behavioral patterns of the other person’s cultural background. In order to do so, we can take different steps such as observing the other culture’s behavioral pattern, getting a cultural mentor who explains the behavior and underlying values and beliefs to us, as well as doing research by reading about it online or from books on the subject.

Next, we need to regularly exercise our ability to put ourselves into the perspective of the other person. We need to constantly ask ourselves the question: “how does the other person see this issue?” or “if I were the other person, how would I think about this issue?”.

Secondly, we need to develop our ability to understand the other person’s feelings and experience them ourselves. In order to do so, we need to ask ourselves questions like:

  • how is the other person feeling right now?
  • if I were the other person, how would I feel right now?
  • what factors are likely to affect how the other person is feeling right now?

At the same time, we also need to start developing the habit of asking other people how they are feeling about certain situations. If we do not do this, then our practice is nothing more but a “guessing game”. Without getting feedback as to whether or not our assumptions are correct, we will never be able to recognize patterns underlying other people’s behavior.

Thirdly, we need to develop our ability to adjust our behavior according to the needs of the other person. In order to do this, we can ask ourselves questions like these:

  • how can I adjust my behavior in a way that will improve the other person’s emotional situation?
  • how can I adjust my behavior in a way in line with the other person’s values, beliefs and assumptions about the world?
  • putting myself into the perspective of the other person, what steps can I take that are likely to make him or her feel appreciated?

Final words 

Lastly, I would like to hear from you.

What situations have you faced where you were simply unable to understand the other person’s perspective? When you were unable to understand a person’s perspective, what steps have you taken to improve your ability to understand him or her? Are you facing a situation right now where you are confused as to how to act in order to resolve a bad situation with another person? What exactly is the problem?

If this article has been helpful to you, don’t forget to share it with your friends. You can also subscribe to my free newsletter about intercultural communication by simply adding your e-mail in the “subscribe now!” section on the top right of the page. 

Also, feel free to check out my upcoming book titled “Becoming Intercultural: how to adapt to any culture quickly” if you are interested in more in-depth strategies on how to adapt to another cultural environment. You can pre-purchase the book by clicking here



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