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A leader needs to know the difference between sympathy and empathy

A leader needs to know the difference between sympathy and empathy

As a busy leader, you should know the difference between sympathy and empathy. Let’s focus on a workplace scenario: One of your colleagues, Toni, is an independent contractor who has been on a temporary assignment with your unit for the last year.

Toni is your colleague and is also a friend. She is a single mother and her 5-year old son is autistic and takes up all her spare time. You think about the successes that she has helped your unit achieve this past year.

Next week Friday, Toni will be let go. How should you respond? Should you express sympathy or empathy at work? Or both?

Most definitions of sympathy and empathy tend to overlap. And busy leaders are also not clear about the difference and tend to mix them up. The result can be a hybrid response that is not authentic or effective.

Sympathy – an act of caring or feeling for others

The origin of the word sympathy means “together with feeling.” Being with another person in sympathy means you respond with an act of pathos — caring or feeling for a person or group. For your sympathy to be authentic, it implies a relationship, such as a friendship, a working relationship or a new relationship brought about by circumstances that have connected you in some way, such as helping a homeless person or a refugee.

You can sympathise or feel sympathy for a stranger or react with sympathy to an interview you hear on the radio, but it can come across as disingenuous if you respond by saying, “I’m so sorry to hear about your (mother, daughter etc.),” if you have no relationship with the other person. Rather than saying you are sorry, it is better for that person to feel heard and understood by acknowledging your understanding of his or her experience — empathy.

Sympathy costs you the energy of truly caring and feeling for the other person.

Consider the following:

  • Authentic sympathy is a primal human response of caring or feeling for others
  • Depending on the relationship you have with a person or group, authentic sympathy can cost you emotional energy or it can energize you
  • In some cases, people who regularly sympathize with a colleague, can end up avoiding or resenting the relationship, because of the emotional drain on their time and energy
  • Showing authentic sympathy can also imply you are involving yourself in other’s situation and feel responsible in some way for a better outcome
  • Sympathy is an appropriate response as along as you are clear about your boundaries. Ask yourself, “where does this person’s life end and where does mine begin?”
  • Authentic sympathy — an act of caring, requires a relationship and an emotional and psychological alignment with the other person or group

How would you respond to Toni, who is about to be let go?

Empathy – an expression of understanding

Empathy is an expression of deep understanding, without judgement. You do not have to agree with the other person’s religion or worldview or behaviour to express empathy.

Empathy happens when you sense and respond to the unique experience of another person by creating a space for that person to feel heard, valued and understood. When you are fully present in this way, you communicate your understanding of the emotions the person is experiencing and your understanding of what it means to them or the impact on them.

When you empathise, you need to resist the urge to solve the other person’s problems and offer solutions. You must be content, as Arthur Ciaramicoli says in his book, The Power of Empathy, “to live with ambiguity” and be content in your “inability to find answers” or solve problems. The more you try to help, the less you are being truly empathic and are shifting into sympathy.

Being willing to learn and understand means you listen for the perspective of the other person — their truth — and try to understand their driving interest or whys, even though you might not agree.

Empathy is an expression of understanding. Empathy is about cultivating a capacity to acknowledge others and to listen to understand and not reply or offer solutions.

It’s committed listening without an agenda — a human connection that adopts the perspective of the other person to better understand and respond to the experience of that person. Acknowledgement of another requires mindfulness and emotional intelligence.

Empathy costs you the energy of being fully present.

Consider the following:

  • Empathy will cost you the energy of committed listening and being present
  • The expression of authentic empathy can happen in an instant or take time
  • Being in another person’s experience means you listen to understand the unique experience of the other person without judgement
  • When you empathize, you choose not to own the outcome or solve problems
  • Responding with authentic empathy means you do not say, “I know how you feel.”
  • Holding the space for another includes silence and being present without an agenda
  • Being empathic is to listen and articulate back your understanding of the emotion you are sensing in the other person and your understanding of what it means to them.

Empathy in practice

E — Emotion — identify and share your understanding of the emotion or emotions you are sensing in the other person.

M — Meaning — listen deeply for and share your understanding of what it means to the other person, or the impact on the other person.

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book — The Seven Leadership Conversations by Dene Rossouw and Tracey Wimperly.

Dene Rossouw Dene Rossouw

Learning Coach at team Possibil.

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