Empathy trumps sympathy…

[bctt tweet=”People complain when they are not feeling heard.  It takes more than sympathy to make someone feel heard. The word for that “something more” is empathy. Empathy is the most powerful change-maker in all situations, in all relationships.” username=”Renee_Giarrusso”]

In the work we have been doing with organisations around creating and using EI and other communication skills and habits to lead, I realise that empathy is one of the keys to building deeper relationships and connections.

Empathy vs Sympathy – What's the difference?

I am often asked how empathy differs to sympathy? I believe a great question, so let me start with what I have experienced as far as what I believe sympathy is.

I recently noticed a personal situation where a friend, Monique, complained about a certain person in her life. Monique simply needed to download to me and get off her chest the way she felt; what the other person had done to annoy her, and to unpack how this person is always letting her down.

I gave her my ear and a few suggestions to deal with this person, and I also said, “I can imagine what you are going through; this friend has been a big part of your life for so long”. Monique said, “Thanks for listening,” but was still heavy, sad and playing back the whole situation. I felt sick for her, and at the same time, my energy felt stifled.

And then…

Fast forward 3 weeks and Monique downloaded again.  The conversation was almost a mirror image of the one prior, and in that moment I realised nothing had changed. She hadn’t actioned anything, and I realised that my words and my suggestions, although comforting, were only a temporary bandaid.

What I had shown was sympathy.

There was no change in her energy or thoughts.

Sympathy is really all about caring and understanding, needed at certain times and only subtly different than empathy. I see it as one notch up from pity

Leaning in…

empathy versus sympathy

Recently I caught up with a client Brad as I was finishing a workshop in his office. Brad is a coaching client of mine and a high performer always looking to grow. On this day he broke down about the conflict he is having with his direct manager. His manager was micromanaging him all of a sudden, taking credit for his ideas, putting down the fact he was having coaching and above all keeping him in a holding stall, unable to share his ideas and contribute across the broader business.

Brad was almost in tears, he looked and sounded broken, even his voice lacked its usual depth. Brad and I grabbed a coffee, and I let him talk through all he was going through, the ins and outs, the sleepless nights, the pressure, the sick feeling every morning when he woke up.

I really leaned into him and felt his experience and could relate some of it to one manager I had many years ago who was less than a leader. What I noticed towards the end of the conversation was Brad's eye contact was stronger. He seemed lighter and more composed. There was a change in his overall demeanour. I also felt lighter seeing this change, and that's when it hit me. My empathy and openness and relatability to his situation was felt by both of us. I was feeling his experience, not just listening to it as an outsider.

He was lighter, and I wasn’t at all, weighed down by the conversation. Something I think that happens at times when we use pity or sympathy.

In a nutshell, I believe sympathy makes others feel cared for, and empathy makes others feel heard.

There is a place in all situations to use pity, sympathy and empathy, and you need to be real and know where to come from. It will depend on the context, the person, the situation and also your values, experiences and reference point to the topic.

I would love to hear how you consciously assess where and when you need to step into empathy and really feel into that other person and what they are experiencing.

What makes this happen and what are the outcomes for you and the other person/s?

Lead to be limitless…

If this article has resonated with you in any way – I’d love to hear your thoughts – get in touch.  Being in service to my clients is why I do what I do, and your feedback, insight and any suggestions are always embraced.

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Renée is a mentor, coach, expert facilitator and keynote speaker. She is the author of ‘Limitless Leadership’ and co-author of ‘Leaders of Influence’.

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