When you hear or read that word, thoughts of consoling a grieving friend or loved one might come to mind. Perhaps you picture yourself assuring a wronged coworker that their boss really is a jerk.
Actually, the latter of these two scenarios is far closer to sympathy than the former, which naturally leans towards empathy. The difference between sympathy and empathy is as simple as passive versus active. The sympathetic listener resonates with the sufferer and then reflects the sufferer’s own feelings and reactions.
What is sympathy?
The term sympathetic vibration is used in both physics and music to describe the phenomenon of objects or instruments passively resonating at frequencies similar to other nearby objects or instruments. Because the passive resonator is not intended to (or was not built to) resonate in that way, what results is either cacophony (in the case of musical instruments) or chaos (a collapsing building or bridge). Interestingly, you will never see a sympathetically vibrating object in any way benefitting the first object.
Now consider the sympathetic friend described above. His buddy is grumbling about how unfair the boss is. Instead of really trying to understand what his buddy is going through, he passively resonates and grumbles with him. Does this help his buddy work through suffering or solve any problems? Of course not! At most, it provides a temporary steam-release for the sufferer, but because they are now resonating at the same frequency, it builds that same anger and frustration in the sympathetic friend.
How about empathy?
In contrast, empathy seeks to actively understand the sufferer’s emotions and the situation as a whole, and then helps to reach in and pull their friend through and out. This is done even if it means that the suffering temporarily intensifies while working them through.
Since sympathy is not the answer, what would an empathetic friend do? If everything about sympathy is wrong, the right answer would be the opposite: Don’t resonate with the sufferer and then offer purely objective advice and solutions. Of course, any man who has ever tried this with his wife knows this is a one-way ticket to a long fight and a long night spent sleeping on the couch.
Surprisingly, the first steps to empathy are similar to, but not the same as, sympathy. Listen to the sufferer, and listen to them actively. Resonate with and understand their pain, but don’t resonate with their anger (their pain is a response to external factors, but their anger is a response to their own pain). Really work to understand what they are experiencing. You cannot safely navigate someone through danger until you know where he or she is and what the terrain is like on the path to safety.
My experience with empathy.
About a year ago, I lived through a great example of empathy. I had just been raked over the coals at work and I was ready to scream bloody murder at anyone who would listen. It happened that I ran into a great friend, also named James, who took me away from work and out to a park. There, he listened to me as I poured out my anger and enumerated the many flaws I perceived in our senior leadership.
He knew exactly what I was going through… he had been raked over the coals many times before. He could have said, “Yeah, I know what you mean… they’re horrible!” Instead, he offered a hand to help me up, dust me off, and move me onward. Not once did he tell me I was justified or right in my anger, and what he said sounds almost cliché in retrospect, but it was exactly what I needed to hear at the time: “This is probably going to get worse before it gets better, but you will make it through this and you will be even stronger. I’m sorry and I’m here if you ever need to talk.”
He was right and I knew he was right. All I needed was someone who understood me to remind me of it and to bolster my hope. James, if you’re reading this… thanks!
Question: What is one thing you have done, or can do, to move yourself from a position of sympathy to one of empathy?