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October 29, 2015

What’s the difference between Empathy and Sympathy, and why has Sympathy got such a bad name?

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By John Ford

Have you ever wondered about the difference between empathy and sympathy?

And if you have, why sympathy has got such a bad name?

I addressed these very questions in the recent pilot of my online course that focused on Challenging Workplace Relationships, but was prompted to write this after watching a short online video  narrated by Dr. Brené Brown.

In the video Dr Brown says that empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection. To empathize, she says, we must 'internalize the feelings of another'.

In the examples she gives she suggests that we sympathize when we avoid acknowledging others difficult feelings and also when we minimize the experience of another, such as when we ‘silver-line’ with expressions like, “at least you have a job,” after hearing that the person was demoted.

I agree that these last two practices (avoidance and minimizing) are not empathetic, but I am not sure that they are what sympathy is about. Or indeed the real reasons for sympathy’s bad name.

As is often the case, words have numerous meanings. Sympathy’s Latin roots point to ‘similar feelings’ (sympathia and pathos).

However, the primary sense in most modern dictionaries suggest that sympathy means “pity or sorrow for someone’s misfortune.”

Sympathy as pity is dis-empowering and fuels disconnection. Comments like “I don’t want your sympathy” confirm this.

We want to be allowed to feel our feelings, rather than be rescued by the sympathizer who can never actually feel for us!

I agree that this sense is unfortunate and I suspect a reason for sympathy’s bad name.

But sympathy can also refer to the original Latin meaning and our capacity to recognize a common feeling. We sense that the other person may be feeling something similar to what we have previously experienced and sympathize.
As the listener, if we express our sympathy we may say “I was also ‘gutted’ when my team lost!”

The apparent danger is that unless we are careful we shift the focus away from the other. Now it’s about me and my team!

That’s another reason for its bad name.

So what then is empathy, and how is it different?

Empathy is our capacity to sense and understand what another is feeling from their – nor our – point of view.

This to me is vital. The focus is on them and how they make sense of their feelings.

So while I listen to my English friend bemoan their loss in the rugby world cup, I can sympathize as suggested above as I know what it feels like to lose.

But I can also empathize.

And when I do the shift is apparent. “I imagine you were gutted when your team lost! Especially as hosts. Must really hurt!”

As is suggested by Paul Bellet and Michael Maloney, our perspective becomes superfluous, certainly secondary to that of the speaker:

“Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes.”

At best my frame of reference and knowledge of rugby can help me to understand what my friend is feeling (sympathy), but empathy lies in my ultimate ability to demonstrate to my friend that I understand him and his woes.

Empathy builds connection, and is based on authentic attention to the other.

Sympathy can move us toward, but is not the same as empathy.

In the same way that avoidance and minimization are neither sympathetic nor empathetic.

Much ado about nothing?

Not so sure. Words matter.

Sympathy has its place, but there are dangers.

Which is why for life’s challenges,

I prefer empathy!