11 May Empathy vs Sympathy does it matter?
I sometimes remark when training people on the tools from my internationally best-selling book Emotional Judo®: Communication Skills to Handle Difficult Conversations and Boost Emotional Intelligence, that women are often taught to sympathise and men are usually taught not to go anywhere near their feelings at all. While this is meant to be a joke, many a true word is said in jest.
More about those who “man up” and turn away from feelings and the two huge problems it causes, in the next blog. For now, let’s look at why it is a problem to sympathise instead of empathise, especially in the workplace.
If you read my recent LinkedIn article, “The Swiss Army Knife of Difficult Conversation Tools”, I introduced a four-step process called EASE that has a multitude of uses. Defusing difficult conversations, handling difficult people, and saying “no” diplomatically, are just a few ways it can be applied.
The first step of that process is to empathise with the other party, yet few people really understand what empathy is.
The first reason for the confusion is that both empathy and sympathy are given as synonyms in a thesaurus. The second reason is that there are conflicting (and sometimes reversed definitions) out there in dictionaries and on the internet.
Both words come from the Greek word “pathos,” which literally means “suffering” but loosely means “emotion.” Pathos is also the root word of apathy, antipathy, and pathetic.
“Em” means “in” and “sym” means “with” or “same”.
Sympathy is only about feelings, whereas empathy is about feelings, situations, points of view; it can even be about artistic appreciation.
Without going too deeply into psychological terms, empathy means we imagine what it might be like for another who is experiencing whatever they are experiencing.
And sympathy means we are triggered to feel the same feelings as another; we merge with the other, perhaps because we have been through similar experiences ourselves.
So why does it matter?
Because in “sympathy” we can lose our boundaries. Emotional Judo® is all about helping you protect your boundaries while being respectful of the other’s and moving toward collaboration. Also, taking pity on people can sometimes come across as condescending.
Empathy is also a fuller expression of the other person’s experience. It can be about feelings but could simply be about acknowledging their point of view.
And if you do nether of them…well…remember that’s the topic of the next blog.
If you would like to learn how to empathise well and get the EASE tool, I am giving away the mini-book Emotional Judo®: EASE for Difficult Conversations for FREE.