Are you sure that's empathy you're sharing?

photo credit: Môsieur J. via PhotoPin

photo credit: Môsieur J. via PhotoPin

If I asked almost anyone I know if they'd describe themselves as having empathy, I think the majority would say 'yes' ... and for the most part, they’d be right!

If I asked the same people if they regularly practiced empathy, I think the majority would again say 'yes' … and for the most part, they’d be wrong!

It’s common to (mis)use the word empathy, when what's really being described is sympathy or compassion. An example - a colleague is having difficulties with a client and needs to vent; you take them out for a coffee, listen to their problem, proffer some uplifting words, make helpful suggestions about how they might resolve the issue, offer to get involved if required, and check in a day or two later to see if they’re ok. Congratulations for being a great colleague who’s demonstrated sympathy, compassion and support - though not empathy.

Here are some definitions, paraphrased from the Merriam-Webster dictionary. 

  • Sympathy – The feeling that you care about someone’s sadness or misfortune;
  • Compassion – The feeling of wanting to help someone who is in trouble;
  • Empathy – The ability to understand and share another person’s emotions

While sympathy and compassion are about care and action; empathy is about understanding and connecting. Generally, the distinction isn’t a problem – when people are going through a rough time, often it’s a comfort just knowing that someone cares enough to get involved. But here's an experience I had, where the distinctions did matter.

A few months ago, after lunch with a friend who was going through a pretty awful time, I was telling my husband a little about our conversation. I think I was expecting him to be a teensy bit in awe of the fabulous support I’d offered my friend; but instead he asked me why I couldn’t have just ‘listened’ to her rather than telling her what to do.

Ouch, ouch, ouch!

It took less than a second to realise that whilst my intentions were good*, they weren’t helpful or, in all likelihood, welcome. I'd perceived and responded to the most obvious triggers for her being upset, without understanding what was really going on for her. Also, she wasn’t anywhere near ready to hear advice or consider options. Whilst I thought I was providing her with some upbeat momentum, it was more likely that I'd made her feel even worse by 1. not listening to her (possibly even cutting her off), and 2. implying the solution was obvious and easy. Regardless of my intentions, it was a lesson that careless sympathy can be atrociously insensitive.

You probably know the empathy metaphor: the ability to be able to stand (or walk) in another’s shoes. Importantly, the metaphor doesn’t go on to include polishing, altering or tossing the shoes away.

Happily, my friend’s circumstances and state of mind are much improved. And fortunately, I got the chance to again sit with her during her journey and came to respect and understand the deeper forces pressing her emotions. My friend is a worldly, intelligent woman and at that time she didn’t need advice or encouragement to get through her difficult feelings. I did not need to offer her my strength; she had her own. What she needed was to be able to share, to be understood and not to be judged (or fixed). 

Even Stephen Convey had to learn ...

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes about the time he and his wife struggled to help their young son who seemed to be slower (academically, socially and athletically) than his peers. They were ‘consumed with a desire to help him’ and commenced a program of coaching, positive reinforcements and intervening when the other kids laughed at him. Despite their commitment, the program had no impact on their son’s abilities.

Meanwhile, as part of his professional work, Stephen Covey was becoming increasingly interested in the study of perceptions. He learned how they ‘govern the way we see’ and realised his and his wife’s perceptions had informed the response to their son’s challenges. They began to ‘separate us from him and to sense his identity, individuality, separateness, and worth’. Further, they began to recognise their son’s uniqueness and capacity to develop at his own pace. Their role became to ‘affirm, enjoy and value him’ whilst silently communicating ‘we don’t need to protect you … you’re fundamentally okay’. Whilst he writes about it with some humility, their son did get over the hump and grew into a sweet, academic athlete with good social skills.

Stephen Covey is of course writing about bigger, broader issues than empathy – however I think this story offers insight into the power of empathy and how we need to step away from our own perception (our version of truth/judgment) in order to be able to empathically connect with others.

Empathy Features in our Professional Lives!

Clearly empathy plays an important role at work - though who hasn’t felt the irony when a leader or colleague has shared that they’re an empathetic listener! (Tip for new players: the truly empathetic don’t boast about their gift; they understand how bragging impacts other people).

If you lead in an environment where change is happening and people matter, spending time with your team or the impacted stakeholders in order to genuinely connect is both important and respectful. In truly connecting with how someone is feeling, we are better placed to understand how they (and others) are impacted, as well as comprehending the issues and opportunities. 

Brene Brown says it best!

In Daring Greatly Brene Brown writes ‘rarely can a response make something better … what makes something better is connection’. A few weeks ago, I posted an animated video of part of one of her talks, focusing on empathy – here it is again, I think it’s terrific!

All of this is not to say that sympathy and compassion are not important pointers to our humanity. They both play a huge role in all our lives. More than anything, I want to highlight a way of being, a way that most of us naturally have within us, that adds an important dimension to how we relate with each other.


* Actually, my intentions may not have been that good - it's possible I may have been operating from a place of ego.