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

Communication, Mindfulness, React vs Respond

Are you listening?

“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”


Rachel Naomi Remen

Becoming a better listener takes a lot of effort, practice, and patience but one of the best gifts we can give a partner, friend, child, or colleague is taking the time to truly listen to them.  We derive some of our greatest joy and life lessons from our relationships and being a really good listener is one of the keys to supporting great relationships of all kinds.

While some people seem to be born with the gift of listening, most of us need a little (or a lot of) practice to develop listening skills, and mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is a way of paying attention with empathy and openness without judgement. When you listen mindfully, you are fully present and able to take in what the other person is saying. You aren’t formulating an opinion or judgment about what they are saying or distracted by your phone. You are simply giving them the gift of your undivided attention.

Ask yourself: How often are you truly listening when you’re in a conversation? As humans, our minds are constantly absorbed by our own thoughts, and this can significantly impact how well we listen. Listening is something we’ve been conditioned to do our whole lives—but there are levels of it. Listening is a conscious act that we must decide to do. Listening without judgment, assumptions, and distractions is a choice.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”

Stephen R. Covey

I’m sure you’ll agree with Stephen R. Covey’s well known quote that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”   I’m also fairly confident that we’ve all met people in our lives who do this.  In fact, we’ve most likely been that person – jumping in, butting in, or telling them how much their experience is so similar to the experience we’ve had.  Or, wanting to jump in and fix things.  Our brains are hard-wired to fix things and so we look for problems we can fix.  But sometimes we don’t need or want someone to fix our problems – sometimes we just want someone to listen to them.  In any relationship, whether at work, at school, and especially at home, listening is a powerful act of presence and love. We can listen to the words that they are saying, and we can listen to the words that they are not saying, but conveying with their bodies.  In any situation, being able to be there, with presence and deep listening, is a powerful act. 

In a study published in a journal of family psychology in 2012, researchers found that partners’ relationships satisfaction increased when they perceived that their partner was making an effort to read what they were thinking and feeling regardless of the level accuracy.  On the flip side, a lack of empathy can make a relationship feel like it lacks intimacy and connection, as well as increase the amount of conflict and negativity between partners. 

What is Empathic Listening? 

Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives, and interpretations, you’re listening to understand . Empathetic listening is essentially listening to another and putting ourselves in their shoes.  You remain empathically connected to yourself and the other, rather than triggered and defensive. When we feel safe enough to be present, we are more likely to express ourselves authentically, and thus more likely to be listened to, validated and valued in return.   

“A relationship is about having a dedicated person to make you feel seen and heard. You will rarely feel seen and heard by someone who lacks empathy.”

Kyle D. Jones

Why empathic listening is important?

Communication is the cornerstone of everything that’s important in life. Whether it’s building your career, being a great spouse, or learning to be an awesome parent, if you don’t communicate well, you will struggle in all those areas.  Empathic listening is just a better way to listen.

Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy, however. We aren’t trying to feel sorry for the other person. We are trying to relate and understand where they are coming from.  Sympathy has a way of making us feel superior. In this situation, it’s vital to remain equals. It’s putting ourselves in the shoes of others, not so we can feel sorry for them or offer constructive feedback. Instead, it simply allows us to fully understand what they are going through so they feel heard and supported.

Empathic listening is very powerful.  People hunger all their lives to express what’s on their mind, be heard, and to be acknowledged—but rarely get enough.This is especially evident if something really good or bad happens in life.  A bad listener conveys that you don’t matter. Equally, if you tell an important story and the other person’s response is to tell their own, you feel dismissed and trivialized. In the process of being listened to we experience that what we feel matters, what we’re saying is legitimate, it counts, and that someone understands us. If someone understands us, in turn, we feel like our experience means something and is real.

Now Your Turn

Try this powerful exercise: Ask someone you are close with a question and simply listen to them.  LISTEN without trying to fix anything.  Listen with the only purpose to understand how they are feeling and what they are saying.  Begin to notice how this transforms the interaction. Share your experience in the comments below.

Communication, Emotional Intelligence

How’s your emotional literacy?

“And sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in.” ~ Jane Austen

Knowing how you feel and how to accurately identify your emotions through words – spoken or written – is a powerful way to improve our connections with others, build understanding, and enriches our relationships.  Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done.  Learning the language of emotions is difficult, and describing your feelings is tough.  At least it is for most of us.  According to Brene’ Brown’s research, the majority of people she interviewed are not comfortable with emotions and far from “fluent in the language of feelings”.

What is an emotional vocabulary?

An emotional vocabulary is one in which language accurately describes how you are feeling. While parents or adults often encourage kids to express their feelings with words (we tell them to “use your words”) we often fall short ourselves.  We often instinctively restrict our vocabulary to anything but the broadest terms (such as “angry” or “happy”) or adopt lingo (like “cool” or “awesome”) to abstract and generalize our feelings.

Why are emotions so hard to explain?

Emotions are very nuanced, with slightly different meanings, and can be very hard to explain. Imagine trying to describe a particular shade of blue – is it more purple than green? Bright or dark? Is there a specific name for that shade such as sky, navy, or indigo?

Emotions are often mixed, and to explain them, you need to be able to identify and label the tones of emotion that make up what you feel. This can be difficult for people who are adept at expressing themselves emotionally, forget those of us who haven’t had much practice developing those capacities for recognizing what we feel.

As a result, we will often forget how to express our emotions verbally, even resorting to emojis, LOL’s, etc. my personal go-to’s, ;), to clarify our feelings. These behaviors are not only adopted by our kids but encouraged culturally as the very speed of communications shortcuts vocabulary and expression to anything but the mere essentials.

Why emotional literacy is so important.

Many of us only know or rely on a few emotional descriptive words, such as mad, sad, happy. How often do you use an emotional word in everyday speech? Can you describe your emotions?   Many of us haven’t been taught.  If our family didn’t discuss emotions on a regular basis, or we were shut down when you tried, we wouldn’t have learned all the ways they can be described and communicated.

Emotional literacy is an important aspect of language.  If we can’t name or articulate what’s happening to us emotionally, we can’t address it correctly.  Much like when you go to the doctor and you are must describe your symptoms.  Without the right descriptions or words, the doctor is unable to accurately diagnose you, and therefore, offer the right prescription or treatment.

Learning to use accurate feeling words when expressing ourselves supports emotional growth.  Developing and expanding our emotional vocabulary will help us approach feelings and relationships in a more sophisticated and well-adjusted way.

Here are some words to describe emotions (from Brene Brown):

Anger

Anxious

Belonging

Blame

Curious

Disappointed

Disgust

Embarrassment

Empathy

Excited

Fear| Scared

Frustrated

Gratitude

Grief

Guilt

 

Happy

Humiliation

Hurt

Jealous

Joy

Judgment

Lonely

Love

Overwhelmed

Regret

Sad

Shame

Surprised

Vulnerability

Worried

 

Photo source: Susan Wheeler (lavender fields in Provence, France)