TRaNSforM - Training Requirements and Nursing Skills for Mobility in health careEuropean Comission - Lifelong Learning Programme
University of Nottingham

TRaNSforM working definition of empathy

Co-ordinating partner Finland

Empathy in nursing is a cognitive, intentional and deliberate act of understanding someone else’s perspective.

Empathy is based on an emotional-social-cognitive ability.

Explanation from partners


Empathy in nursing is a cognitive, intentional and deliberate act of taking over someone else’s perspective.

There is a tendency to define empathy on two levels. First there is a conceptual definition of empathy as an attitude (as a way of being with another person). This level includes conditions of warmth, genuineness and empathic listening. These things might be similar or influenced by the moral and emotive components of empathy. These components are emotional. Second, there is an operational level of empathy as a communication skill and it includes the helper´s ability to communicate, warmth and genuineness (our capacity to understand the inner world of another person, also cognitive awareness of the other person´s world). These things are cognitive components. (Rogers, 1975)

You may also consider empathy as a social-cognitive ability. Then it can be divided into three connected components: perceptive (recognising and interpreting cues), social-cognitive (recognising of thoughts, motives, intentions, attribution of meaning and behaviour) and affective (recognising of emotions). The focus of the process lies on the patient’s/client’s experience. “empathetic competence.” (Bischoff-Wanner, 2002). Cognitive empathy is an active process and to be understood as work performance and as

Empathy is ability to enter into and understand the world of the other person and communicate this understanding to him or her”. (Egan, 1986, p. 95).

“Empathy is a form of interaction involving communication of the helper´s attitudes and an understanding of patient's world” (Reynolds, 2000, p.7).

There is also criticism on the concept of empathy in nursing.  Bischoff-Wanner (2002) points out that nursing science has largely ignored the discussions and results of empathy research in other disciplines and - closely connected to this - nursing science has early and uncritically adopted the psychotherapeutic understanding of empathy into nursing, thereby equating the psychotherapeutic and the nursing situation.

Different criticism comes from Hülsken-Giesler (2008), who emphasizes the shortcomings with respect to the nursing-specific non-cognitive “body-knowledge”. “Elimination of the “body-knowledge” implies the reduction of reason to its cognitive-instrumental dimensions” (Greb 2003, p.165).

Further information

  • Bischoff-Wanner, C. M. (2002) Empathie in der Pflege. Begriffsklärung und Entwicklung eines Rahmenmodells. 1. Aufl, Bern u.a.: Huber. (translated by I. Bergmann-Tyacke).
  • Egan, G. (1986) The skilled helper. New York: Brooks-Cole.
  • Dökmen, Ü. (1994) İletişim Çatışmaları ve Empati. İstanbul: Sistem Yayıncılık.
  • G reb, U. (2003) Identitätskritik und Lehrerbildung. Ein hochschuldidaktisches Konzept für die Fachdidaktik Pflege. Frankfurt/M.: Mabuse.
  • H ülsken-Giesler, M. (2008): Der Zugang zum Anderen. Zur theoretischen Rekonstruktion von Professionalisierungsstrategien pflegerischen Handelns im Spannungsfeld von Mimesis und Maschinenlogik. Osnabrück: V&R unipress GmbH.
  • Leinio-Kilpi, H. (1990a) Good Nursing Care. On What Basis? Doctoral Dissertation. Publications of The University of Turku D 49.
  • Leino-Kilpi, H and Välimäki, M. (2009) Etiikka hoitotyössä. Helsinki: WSOY.
  • Reynolds, W. (2000) The development and measurement of empathy in nursing. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • Reynolds, W. (2005) The concept of empathy. In: Cutliffe, J. and McKenna, H. (Editors) The essential concepts of nursing. London: Elsevier Ltd, pp. 93-108. 
  • Rogers, C. (1975) Empathic: Unappreciated way of being. The Counselling Physiologist.  5(2): pp.2-10.
  • Nunes, M.O. (1999) Uma Abordagem Sobre a Relação de Ajuda. In A Pessoa Como Centro – Revista de Estudos Rogerianos (Nº 3). Lisboa: Associação Portuguesa de Psicoterapia Centrada na Pessoa e Counselling.

Training Requirements and Nursing Skills for Mobility in Health Care


Dr Carol Hall
Telephone: +44 (0)115 8 230 906