The Experience of Empathy: Intuitive, Sympathetic, and Intellectual Aspects of Social Understanding

Rita W. Meneses*, Michael Larkin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Empathy is fundamental for interpersonal relationships, and therapy. There is some theoretical dissensus about its underlying process. This study investigated the lived experience of understanding another person through an innovative combination of qualitative methods. The design involved making video recordings of interpersonal interactions between pairs of volunteers. The recordings were then used for a same-day cued-recall interview. During the interview, both volunteers were asked to discuss their interaction experiences. Four in-depth case studies, involving eight participants, were conducted using this technique. The interviews were then subjected to Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. The results illuminate the multi-dimensional characteristics of interpersonal understanding. Namely, understanding another person was experienced as a phenomenon with three main aspects to it: 1) intuitive; 2) shared/sympathetic; and 3) imaginative/intellectual. Interestingly, shared/sympathetic and imaginative/intellectual understandings were more strongly connected with insights accessed via verbal communication, and with more self-based understandings. On the other hand, intuitive understandings were typically linked to the nonverbal communication domain, and with more other-based, intersubjective or pre-reflective forms of understanding. We argue that intuitive understandings have been under-represented in the empathy literature, and should be acknowledged as an important experiential component of this phenomenon, to be distinguished from intellectual and sympathetic understandings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-32
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Humanistic Psychology
Issue number1
Early online date21 Apr 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


  • empathy
  • intuition
  • perspective-taking
  • simulation
  • social understandings
  • sympathy


Dive into the research topics of 'The Experience of Empathy: Intuitive, Sympathetic, and Intellectual Aspects of Social Understanding'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this