People often confuse the two words Empathy and Sympathy, but they come from very different places and drive very different responses.
If I have sympathy for someone, I am sorry for them and their situation. Their plight invokes my emotions. I would most likely want to jump in and help them. My daughter was struggling with making friends in a new rowing club. My heart went out to her as I watched her stand to one side of the group, not joining in. I knew she hated going there. I felt so sorry for her each time she got out of the car. My overwhelming urge was to wrap my arms around her and hustle her back to the car, just bring her home.
But what would that have taught her? When things are tough, just give up. Exercise is not important. Making new friends is not worth the effort. Never challenge yourself.
No, I resisted the urge and tried to support her as she worked through it. I engaged as much empathy as I could (even though impatience tried to muscle in sometimes!).
Empathy happens at an understanding level, which really engages with everything that is human vulnerability .
I asked her to explain how she felt and then I listened hard. I heard about her anxiety, how she didn’t know anyone, how her stomach was in a knot before going. I bit my tongue as platitudes like ” sure you’ll get to know everyone in no time” and “just say hello and smile” tried to emerge. Instead, I told her that I knew how hard it was. I told her about when I started out in business on my own and I went to networking events where I knew nobody. I felt exactly the same – I remembered how that was. Instead of feeling sorry for her, I really understood her dilemma and realised that she didn’t want to give up, she just wanted to figure out how to deal with the situation.
I asked her to think of things she could do and put them into action. Bit by bit, week by week she persevered. Little by little our conversations started to shift. Then one evening I was early picking her up and there she was in the centre of the group, chatting and laughing like she’d been there all her life!
Empathy elicits a different response to that of sympathy. Sympathy takes the power from someone, makes them feel like they are the victim. Empathy empowers people. It allows us to know that it’ s OK to feel whatever we feel, and that we can move on from that place to something better. To feel like someone really hears what you are expressing, to know that someone understands your personal dilemma – is at the core of what makes us strong, makes us human. Connecting with someone at that level is powerful.
The life lessons my daughter learned through that experience were far more important for her than if I had given in to sympathy, and will stand to her forever.
Anytime I showed empathy to my team at work, the result was more engaged and loyal colleagues who always went the extra mile.
L’Oreal showed that their salespeople who engaged with empathy outsold their non-empathic counterparts by almost $100,000 annually, delivering millions to the revenue line of their company.
Developing empathy allows you to have enriched relationships, personally and professionally, and the results are action oriented and positive.
How can you develop empathy?
- Observe a conversation others are having and see if you can figure out what feelings are driving the conversation. Watch the reactions, facial expressions
and body language and see if they tie in to the tone and words of the speakers.
- Pick one conversation to have every day where you pay attention to your feelings during the conversations. What’s going on behind the words.
- Reflect back to someone you trust what you noted in a conversation with them. Did you understand what they said correctly? How did they understand what you said? Was that what you meant?
Being more deliberate with your emotions is what Emotional Intelligence is all about. Using your emotions to deliver the outcomes you want is managing yourself and others at a much higher level. Practicing these small steps every day will give you an insight into what motivates and drives others. it will help you to empower them to find solutions to their own problems and elicit positive action.
What’s not to like about that?