Empathy vs Sympathy: Why Some People Are More Likeable Than Others

Several
years ago I went through a gut-wrenching break-up. It was traumatic,
painful and devastating. The one bright spot amidst the tears and
heartache was the understanding, devotion and genuine care displayed by
my family and friends as I went through the healing process. It meant
the world to me.
Several months later
one of my family members fell ill. Once again I turned to my support
system. This time, however, their response was a bit different. It
wasn’t that they didn’t care per se, they expressed their feelings a bit
differently. I sensed that they couldn’t quite feel where I was coming
from. 
They seem to be more understanding and emotionally supportive
during my break up. Their lukewarm and slightly distant responses left
me feeling angry, confused and hurt.
This experience taught me the difference between empathy and sympathy.

When one doesn’t have similar experience, very likely he has sympathy rather than empathy

Once
I was able to distance myself from the situations and view them a bit
more objectively I realized a few important factors which helped explain
the differences in the responses I received.

The
first thing I learned is that when people have shared or similar
experiences, it resonates with them more. During my break up I heard
things like, “girl, I know how you feel,” or “chile it ain’t going to be
easy, take as much time as you need to get over this,” and “call me
anytime you need to talk–day or night–and I’ll be there to listen.”
These responses came from a place of knowing how I felt in the moment.
These responses were sprinkled with kindness, concern and most
important, empathy.
The
second important thing I learned is that when it comes to experiences
that are foreign to others, people tend to disassociate their feelings
and lean towards providing advice. This type of response–while it can
appear uncaring, cold and a bit callous, truly is birth out of a place
of sincere compassion and sympathy.
And there in
lies the difference between empathizing and sympathizing. Empathy is the
ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. It is
the ability to stand in his or her shoes and endure the gut punch.
Sympathy,
on the other hand, allows another person to see the situation through
the lens of a spectator–similar to watching a movie. It is a place of
distance and inexperience. It allows an individual to see the gut punch
but not feel it. It leaves the spectator saying, “Man, that must have
hurt. If I were them I would have…”

When a person is in pain, emotional support always trumps practical advice

The
worse thing you can do during a time of turmoil is providing advice.
Sure you mean well, but giving unsolicited advice is never a good idea.
Nine times out of ten, when a person is in despair they want to feel
heard and understood. As hard as it can be sometimes–simply listening to
a person can be the most helpful and profoundly comforting thing you
can do. When a person is in pain, emotional support always trumps
practical advice.
Let’s say your good friend loses
their job and you’ve never experienced job loss or struggled with
unemployment. Saying things like “at least you got your health,” or ”
you’ve got money saved, you’ll be alright…” won’t help. They are
accurate and your friend will bounce back, however, the true struggle
may have nothing at all to do with money. He or she could be feeling
betrayed, devalued, unappreciated and feel a loss of identity. Those
responses don’t address how the person is feeling.
Instead,
listen first. Try to understand how they are feeling. Try to visualize
it in your mind’s eye–not how you would feel in the situation but try to
imagine how they said they feel. Then and only then should you speak.
And when you do, say things that address their concerns such as, “you
put in so much time and energy into that job, I understand why you feel
betrayed, ” or “you’re right, they should have at least given you a
warning that the company was downsizing…”
If all else fails, just listening, wiping away tears and letting them know that you are here – no matter what they need…

Here are four ways to move from sympathizing to empathizing:

Find a way to relate to what they are experiencing
Try
to establish some sort of common ground in your mind. In the example of
a friend who’ve experienced job loss, try relating to their feelings of
rejection. We’ve all experienced rejection in some form or another.
Maybe you had a bad break up with your Ex. The situations are very
different but the feelings are parallel. Draw on that experience to help
you empathize with what they are feeling.
Practice finding commonalities with everyone you meet
Finding
a way to relate to those around you not only makes you more empathetic
it makes you more relatable. When you meet a new person, make it a
practice to find at least three things you have in common with them.
Also,
when people are sharing their experiences with you, work to engage your
imagination and visualize what they are saying. Try injecting yourself
into the situation and feeling what they felt. Doing this helps train
your brain to move from a state of ego-centrism to being “other’s”
focused.
The Journal of Neuroscience1
published a study in which researchers found that the tendency to be
egocentric is natural for human beings. However, researchers also found
that a part of your brain recognizes the lack of empathy and corrects
itself. According to the study:
“This
specific part of your brain is called the the right supramarginal
gyrus. When this brain region doesn’t function properly—or when we have
to make particularly quick decisions— researchers found one’s ability
for empathy is dramatically reduced. This area of the brain helps us to
distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people and is
responsible for empathy and compassion.”
Respond to feelings not words
When
a wound is fresh and a person is angry and hurt they are also confused.
This is why listening to understand is so paramount to producing an
empathetic response. You have to listen with your ears, your eyes and
most importantly your heart. You have to hear the subtext and what is
not being said.
Parents, teachers, caregivers and
anyone who works with children understand this concept. Kids–especially
when they are very little–don’t have the vocabulary to adequately
express themselves. Adults have to assess the situation, interpret body
language and facial expressions and in some way relate to what the child
has experienced. The adult then responds to what the child is feeling
in lieu of what they said.
Listen, Listen LISTEN
The
key to comforting someone who is hurting is listening. You could have
experienced the EXACT thing they are going through but you and your
friend are unique individuals and see things differently. You may think
you know how they feel because of how you feel but you can never be sure
until they tell you.
You have to learn to fight the
urge to jump in and say something. Even when the situation gets awkward
and you feel something should be said. Fight the urge. Turn off your
inner dialogue. Stop constructing your response. Listen to them.
They
will tell you–through their words, tears and actions–exactly what they
need. And if you are unsure what to do or say, asking the simple
question, “what can I do to help” or what do you need from me,” is
better than assuming and doing the wrong thing.
Empathy
requires more than merely putting yourself into someone else’s
position. It is the ability to imagine yourself as him in the exact
situation he or she is in. You cannot empathize with an abstract. The
experience must become concrete.

When done
correctly, empathy leads to compassion which is suffering with someone
in lieu of merely pitying them. True empathy says I share your emotions.
Compassion, which is built from empathy, is the truest form of comfort
we as humans can provide.

Also Read:  Don't Wait for People to Praise You. Do It Yourself Every Single Day

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Updated: September 7, 2017 — 10:36 pm

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