Help? – No way. What wasn’t an issue just became one.
Picture this. I am sitting in my office when an over enthusiastic colleague pokes his nose through my door.
“Hey Pete, I’ve got the latest scoop from LinkedIn,” he says excitedly, thumbing over his shoulder into the great corporate beyond, “it’s empathy, it’s all the rage, all the big boys are doing it.”
“Really? Ok, what’s the difference between empathy and sympathy, I already do sympathy.”
“Apparently empathy means you care, I don’t know, whatever, just go to do it I guess.”
“Ok, well what’s in it for me?”
“Bad luck, it’s not about you. I think it’s about a heap more downtime with needy employees.”
“Great, I am on it. I’ll go do some empathy right now”
Ok, maybe that’s just plain silly (if it’s not, we have a problem), but the fact is there is so much to learn these days and so much information on personal and professional development, where do you focus? Well, empathy is a biggie, and deserves a fair amount of your time. So read on…
There is a vast and critically important difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy has the potential to do more damage than good. Conversely, empathy has the potential to really help someone and to build genuine relationships.
Having the ability to empathise is critical in all areas of your life, whether you’re a business leader, colleague, parent, friend, coach or anyone connecting and having relationships. Whether you show sympathy or empathy will govern whether the outcome is an experience that may shame the recipient, may leave them with nothing or may leave them actually feeling better. You need to take the time to understand the difference. Let’s begin by looking at Sympathy.
What is sympathy? It sounds nice doesn’t it? A little like symphony. So it must be good. At least I always thought it must.
The definition is:
“Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” Oxford Dictionaries
Ohhh – Ok, doesn’t sound quite so good now when you read the definition. Misfortune – I don’t really want to advertise the fact that I’m misfortunate. And if you feel sorry for me because I am misfortunate, does that mean you’re suggesting you’re better – even just a little bit better than me. Maybe I’ll just keep my misfortunes to myself. Now this is where Brené Brown of Daring Greatly fame tells us shame rears its very unattractive head.
Ms Brown tells us that shame is a reflection of how we feel about ourselves, not about what we have done. We may feel bad about doing something we consider to be wrong, not good or inappropriate. That’s called guilt and we can get over that. We know the act was bad, but we don’t see ourselves as fundamentally bad.
Alternatively, if we do see ourselves as fundamentally bad, then we feel shame. Shame leads to disconnection. We don’t want to share with others that we are fundamentally wrong in some way, so we retreat. One of our most primary needs is connection. Sympathy doesn’t create connection, it creates disconnection. The giver distances them self by differentiating them self from you, and in turn you politely step back in shame. This is where empathy comes in. I’ll get to that in just a moment, so stay at your desk, don’t run off empathising just yet.
A Practical Sympathy Example for Dummies (this one for the blokes)
I am a man, so simple is good. I am not beyond seeking a little bit of sympathy on very odd occasions, and yes, I admit to getting a little theatrical. I just want my wife to say
“oh, you poor darling, you have a splinter in your finger, I feel so sorry for you, here let me bandage it and put your arm in a sling. Let’s sit you down and I’ll get you a cuppa and a nice piece of cake”
But my wife is a nurse, so she reserves the right to dish out sympathy only on very special occasions. Fair dinkum (yes, Australians do say that, well us older ones do) – Fair dinkum, I’d have to lose and arm in a gardening accident, put it over my shoulder, bring it in to the house and dump it down on the dining room table like a side of lamb, just to get a little sympathy in my house. So ok, I ham it up, to the point where sometimes I am even saying to myself, “I hear what you’re saying Peter, but I am just not feeling it”, but the show goes on and I ham away.
So what’s the takeaway here for the boys –
Sympathy is what men want, but really don’t need and is what women don’t have for us and consequently can’t give us.
If lesson number 1 is be careful dishing out sympathy, lesson number 2 is, it’s definitely not all about you. Someone elses misfortune is not an opportunity for you to seek sympathy.
Enough about you, let me tell you about me
We all know someone who can turn your titanic into a leak in a wooden fishing boat. “So you lost your arm in a gardening accident did you, you think that’s bad, well I lost a leg mowing the lawn the other day and the dog had to carry me 3 miles to the emergency department.” Ok, Ok – you win, your amputation trumps mine.
But it really isn’t about you, you’ll get your turn, if you really do need it.
Now- What is Empathy?
Brené Brown tells us that the attributes of empathy are:
“(1) to be able to see the world as others see it; (2) to be non-judgemental; (3) to understand another person’s feelings; and (4) to communicate your understanding of the persons feelings.” (Brown, Pg 37)
Drawing on Experience
Your best reaction is to draw on your own experiences and appreciate how the other person is feeling and tell them so. “I can imagine how you feel, this must be very difficult for you, I know it would be for me”. Perhaps you can relate a personal story, but be weary you’re not taking the focus to you. Remember that this is all about connection, so the key is to let the person know that they are not alone, they are connected through your shared experiences, emotions etc.
Parenting and Empathy – be non-judgemental
I particularly like the way in which Brené Brown talks about parenting and our need to be non-judgemental. Her wisdom is applicable across all we do. We are all out there doing what we feel is right and is the best for our children. We all know the feeling when we see other parents doing something that we don’t agree with. Our first inclination is to judge them, then to categorise them, and frankly that’s what they are probably doing to us in return. But like us, everybody is doing what they truly believe is best with what they have. Empathy is not judging. The parents of the screaming child, the child that won’t eat, the child who won’t come out of their room or cries when they lose a running race – there we all go but for the grace of god.
Nurses and Empathy – communicate your understanding of their feelings
If ever there was a calling for administering of the right doses of empathy and sympathy it’s nursing. My wife works in Neuro theatre, brains and backs. Amongst all the many wonderful stories of recovery that she and her colleagues watch unfold, are so many that end in heartache for the patients and families. The clean and tidy clinical surroundings don’t lesson the raw and messy emotions associated with the impact of life threatening illnesses and surgical procedures. Imagine holding the hand of someone slowly passing away and trying to express some degree of empathy. How can you? Or sitting with a family who have just lost a loved one or seen their child lose the function of their body for the rest of their life through some tragic accident. I can’t begin to imagine how hard that must be, but still, nurses face this continually and they give empathy when it’s needed most. They communicate their understanding of other people’s feelings in a non-judgemental way and provide that connection.
Next time you’re talking with a friend, a colleague or family member and they are relating something difficult for them, remember, it’s not about pitying them, it’s about relating to them, seeing the world through their eyes, sharing experiences and emotions in a non-judgemental way.
Brown, Brené 2007, I thought it was just me (but it isn’t), Gotham Books, New York
Did you enjoy this post? If so, please share on your favourite social media (buttons below). It’s a HUGE help for me and I am always really grateful. Thanks, Pete.