I admit it. Last fall, I picked on a college student during a guest lecture at the University of San Francisco. I was speaking to a group of marketing and market research students on the role of empathy in the workplace. Looking for an example of empathy vs sympathy, I chose a young woman with long curly hair sitting in the front row.

“It must be difficult to keep your hair from frizzing in this San Francisco humidity.” I asked her in front of the class.

“It’s awful.” she replied, looking up at me past the frizzy mess that can be understood only by those blessed with curly hair yet cursed to wake up in a humid environment without the right products to keep it under control.

“That’s too bad,” I said “that must be awful for you.”

My expressions were a bit exaggerated and I dialed up the tone of looking down on her. I was showing that I was feeling ‘for’ her. 

That was sympathy.

Then I tried another approach. Continuing after I said, “it’s awful.”

“I can imagine. My hair is curly when it’s longer, and on days like this, it would be a big puff ball.” I said with a tone of understanding and solidarity.

That… was an expression of empathy.

In today’s society, we’ve lost what empathy is all about. The word “empathy” is tossed around in our current political climate like a frisee salad. ‘This person lacks empathy.’ ‘This group needs to get empathy with another group.’ Unfortunately, clear explanations of what empathy is and how to go about getting it have not been ingredients in this salad. In this post, we’re having sympathy for empathy to help make the distinctions clear.

Sympathy for...

We are culturally awash in sympathy. From cards to comments, we constantly share our sympathies with those suffering a fate we are glad not to be experiencing ourselves. That is the beauty, and the problem, with sympathy.

Sympathy is about feeling ‘for’ someone. If you want to see examples of sympathy, go on Facebook and look at the comments on a friend’s page who has lost a job, a pet or perhaps a family member. “I’m sorry for your loss” is the common expression of sympathy that’s offered.

The way sympathy is expressed, it maintains a distance between the sympathizer and the recipient. “For YOUR loss.” It’s a subtle thing and we aren’t thinking about it when we are receiving sympathy, probably because we need comfort in that time of crisis. Sympathy is putting one person, the sympathizer, over the other person. Subtext can be “I’m glad it’s not me.”

Sympathy can border on pity if we aren’t careful.

Empathy with...

Empathy is an expression of understanding and seeing someone else’s perspective, as them. True empathy tears down the distance between two people. Go onto Facebook, to those same posts offering condolences for the loss, and you’ll probably find someone who will comment “I’m sorry, I can imagine how it must feel.” They might share their own experience of loss as well.

Sympathy can comfort - like receiving a pat on the back or a hug. Empathy can make you feel less alone - others are relating to you.

There’s comfort in shared experiences, knowing someone understands you and what you are going through. Empathy builds a connection far stronger than sympathy.

I said we’d have some sympathy for empathy. So, let’s take sympathy’s point of view (which is empathy itself) toward empathy.

“Empathy, we’re sorry that you don’t have a card section with your name on it.”

“Empathy, we’re sorry that people are out of practice on how to do what you offer.”

“Empathy, it’s too bad that people are 40% less empathetic today.”

“Empathy, it’s too bad you don’t have your own emoji on Facebook.”

Notice how sympathy takes a position that comes across as ‘superior’ to empathy in those statements? Here’s how you might reply with empathy to empathy.

“Empathy, I can imagine it doesn’t feel good to not have a card section with your name on it.”

“Empathy, I imagine it must be difficult to be such a valuable, inherent skill that people have forgotten how to use.”

“Empathy, the way you describe the feeling of not having an emoji on Facebook, I imagine that must be how dislike feels as well.”

Doesn’t that feel different? Did you notice how the word “imagine” was used repeatedly. Having empathy means seeing someone else’s point of view, which means you must step out of your own perspective and take on theirs. Imagine that!

Sympathy and Empathy at Work

Sympathy and empathy both have a role in the workplace. Just like on Facebook, you might offer sympathy for others when they have suffered a loss. It’s the pat on the back, the affirmation that it’s going to be ok. You might also use sympathy when someone’s work project didn’t succeed. “I’m sorry the project got cancelled.” Or “that really sucks the boss didn’t give you the greenlight.”

Empathy can also be used in the workplace, particularly when we use cognitive empathy - our ability to take someone else’s perspective. Here are a few examples…

“Your project got canceled? I know how that feels. It happened to me last year and I was so upset. Let’s go get a coffee and talk about it.”

“Help me understand your thoughts on this.”

“What’s your perspective on the situation?”

Notice these examples are supportive and very open. This goes back to the 5 steps you need to develop empathy: Dismantle Judgment, Ask Good Questions, Actively Listen, Integrate into Understanding and Use Solution Imagination.

Empathy allows you to collaborate with your colleagues, find solutions together, or at least solutions that work for everyone. You can apply empathy to critical thinking and problem solving. Applying empathy requires more work, because you must be more mindful and constantly consider the other person’s perspective. You don’t have to agree with them but you might be surprised how you can reach a stronger solution through the perspective-taking.

With empathy, you foster greater teamwork and engagement. That far outweighs the “mental pain” of stretching yourself to recognize and see their perspective.

Sympathy and empathy. Both have their place. Empathy has been under-utilized. With some awareness and mindfulness, you can strengthen your empathy skills.

Here’s a challenge to keep you in an empathy mindset. In your conversations with colleagues (and others), as you are replying, start with “I see your point of view…”

Give it a try and share your story with us via our LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter channels.

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