Many people describe themselves as empathetic, saying things like, “I feel other people’s pain” or “people vent about their problems to me because I am a good listener.” These are misguided statements; rather than being emphatic, these well-intentioned people are sympathizing. While nuanced, there are important distinctions between empathy and sympathy.
Sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone, usually pity. It’s relatively automatic, effortless, and often sounds like commiserating. “That really sucks. No wonder you’re so mad! I would be, too!”
Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s feelings because you have a shared experience. You can console because you have walked in similar shoes. Empathy sounds like, “I hear you, I’ve been there before, too. What can you do to make it better?”
The difference is subtle but important. While sympathy is an appropriate response in certain cases, many times it causes collusion, validating that he or she is a victim of circumstance. This only adds to drama and negativity.
Being empathetic is more effective; it fuels connection and creates accountability to solve problems. As Amy Fortney Parks, educator and psychologist states, “Empathy is when you’re down in a deep, dark pit and I climb down with you and say, “It’s really dark down here. How are we going to get out of here?” That’s empathy. Stepping into someone’s shoes, figuring out what he or she is feeling and how to solve the problem.”
Here are some tips to be more empathetic:
Don’t Give Advice
We naturally want to give advice, but this usually is not what the person is looking for, nor does it help him or her step out of victim mentality. Most people just want to be heard so listen thoughtfully and offer to help develop a solution.
Workplace example: someone just got moved in a company reorg
Don’t say: “If I were you, I would put my head down and work hard.”
Do say: “This must be very upsetting news for you. Once you’ve had a chance to process it, I’ll help you brainstorm a path forward.”
Avoid Saying “You Poor Thing”
Most people dislike being pitied; it makes them feel small. Since empathy is about understanding and empowering, acknowledge the situation and redirect to problem-solving.
Workplace example: someone just received tough feedback from his/her manager
Don’t say: “I’m so sorry. That’s awful. I feel so badly for you.”
Do say: “That sounds like tough feedback and it must have stung. How are you going to address it?”
It’s so easy to fall into the gossip trap when there is interpersonal conflict in the workplace. Don’t engage, don’t collude! Complaining about a coworker behind his or her back is toxic behavior; it tears apart a culture and it not only doesn’t resolve the problem, but it also makes it worse.
Workplace example: someone is in a conflict with a co-worker
Don’t say: “I would be upset, too. She never pulls her weight on the team. I wish her manager would do something about it!”
Do say: “It seems that you are upset by the situation. What can you do to make the situation better? Can I facilitate a conversation between the two of you?”
Don’t Paint a Silver Lining
On a different note, being empathetic isn’t about minimizing or putting a sunshiny positive spin on every hard situation. Most people don’t want to hear how everything is going to be just fine. Instead, acknowledge the person’s feelings and help him or her determine one thing that can be done to make the situation better.
Workplace example: someone is feeling overloaded with work
Don’t say: “It’s going to be okay; things will slow down next month. You can make it! And at least we are busy; it’s job security!”
Do say: “I can imagine you may be feeling stressed about your current workload. What can be done today to make things feel more manageable?”
Empathizing with others will make them feel more respected, connected, and supported while at the same time holding them accountable for finding a solution rather than wallowing in a pity party. It takes intentional practice to be more emphatic but doing so will make you a better coworker, manager, and friend.
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Like this? Listen to my podcast with Steve Burrows, one of the world’s most prolific structural engineers as he talks about the power of empathy.
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