Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Empathy, Self-Awareness, Vulnerability

The difference between Empathy & Sympathy

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Empathy is easily and often confused with sympathy, where giving advice and judgement are disguised as concern. I consider myself an empathetic person. In fact, I believe having empathy is fundamental in my career as an HR professional, leader and coach. I also believe empathy is a requirement in the field of anthropology and the study of peoples and cultures, in which I did my undergrad. So, after reading Brene’ Brown’s book “Dare to Lead” I’ve been thinking a lot about it and recognize that I have a lot room to improve. And, also that others do as well. It made me aware of how much I crave empathy from others. Sometimes we just need someone to simply be there. Not to fix anything, or to do anything in particular, but just to let us feel that we are cared for and supported. Empathy is key to developing greater connection in our daily lives, as well as within the broader world. To add or improve upon our empathy skills, we need to learn and practice specific skills, and readily distinguish empathy from sympathy.

So, drawing from the definitions and examples in “Dare to Lead”, I’d like to explore the practice of empathy. Simply put, empathy is putting yourself into someone’s shoes. It includes trying to imagine how another person thinks, feels, and moves. It includes trying to imagine what it is like to live in this person’s skin, in their world, with their thoughts, emotions, perspective, and outlook. When we practice empathy, we try as best we can to suspend our judgement, to be open, genuinely interested and curious. Sympathy, in contrast, includes feelings of sorrow or pity for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy is easily confused with sympathy, where giving advice and judgement are disguised as concern. Sympathy separates us while empathy connects us.

“Empathy has no script. There is no right or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of “you’re not alone”. ~ Brene’ Brown

What gets in the way of empathy?

Let’s explore what gets in the way of empathy. As humans we tend to respond in two ways when people share their challenges or pain with us. We either try and make the person feel better by encouraging them to look on the bright side or we attempt to offer a solution to the problem or situation at hand. Neither of these are empathetic responses. How often when someone shares a challenging experience do we respond with phrases that start with “oh, well lucky that…” or “at least…” or “if you think that’s bad…”. Here are a few examples:

“My daughter has been really sick all week”, the likely response “Oh too bad, but lucky your son didn’t get sick too”.

“My partner and I had an argument last night and it’s left me feeling upset”, response may follow “don’t worry about it, you two have such a strong relationship”.

“I’m feeling so stressed and tired with work and the family, I just feel so overwhelmed”, someone responds “you just need a nice warm bath and an early night”.

“I’m so tired of driving my kids around, I never seem to have any time to myself”, and the response “that’s nothing. Let me tell you how much I have to drive” or, “at least you still have kids to drive around”.

These are all examples of our habitual desire to make people feel better by pointing out the bright side or to make the situation better by offering a solution. While these sentiments are generally well-intended, they rarely help the suffering person. What people usually need is to feel seen and heard as this fuels connection and healing. The key is keeping the focus on the person sharing or struggling and not making it about you. Only after this soothing experience of connection and empathy can people be open to solutions to their problems or the glass half full approach.

Here are some examples of more empathetic responses:

“Oh it sounds like you’ve had a really rough week” or “I can feel your pain” or “it sounds like you’ve got a lot going on in your life right now”. It is worth taking a moment to reflect on our tendency to respond to other peoples challenges the way we habitually do. Our human tendency to offer solutions or to make people see the bright side may actually be a way for us avoiding this sense of shared vulnerability. For in focusing on the solution or the glass half full perspective, we can brush off the sadness or vulnerability that is present for the other. This in turn protects us from our own vulnerabilities. And here we are reminded that the path of self awareness requires us to show courage and to face our vulnerabilities with a sense of shared curiosity.

In this short video Brene’ Brown explains the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Brene’ Brown on Empathy vs Sympathy

Now, it’s your turn.

When you’re sharing a challenging experience with someone, what are the empathy misses that shut you down? What emotions come up for you when your sharing meets one of these barriers? On the flip side, how do you rate your empathetic skill? Are there one or two responses that you typically use that you need to change? Share your responses in the comments below.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

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