Tuesday, August 30, 2011

You’ll Get no Sympathy from Me!

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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?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How to be Faithful: The Tale of the Prince and His Jewels

My blog entry this week will be a little different.  Upon waking this morning, I had an idea for a fable, like those written by Aesop.  While this reads like a children’s story, I believe the moral applies to people of all ages and both sexes.

With that, I humbly offer you The Tale of the Prince and His Jewels.

Photo credit: honorinejewels.com
Not so long ago, be that yesterday or two millennia gone by, there lived a handsome prince in a wealthy, wealthy land.  The prince was coming quickly upon his twentieth birthday, at which point he was required to choose a wife.

Being that this was a wealthy land, and being that the prince was royalty, you would imagine that the prince had servants… and you would be right!  Now, do you remember when I said that the prince was handsome?  Well, his servants were equally handsome, and the prince knew it.

The prince wanted to be sure the maiden he married would not be seduced by one of his servants.  After consulting with his advisors, he came up with a plan.  That day, a royal invitation was sent out to all the young maidens in the land.

On the day all the maidens arrived, the prince made an announcement.

“Greetings, lovely maidens of our great land!  On this day, I offer each of you a challenge.  All who choose to participate will receive a reward of precious jewels.  However, one will become my bride, the princess, and eventually the queen of this land!”

A loud murmur arose from the maidens.  “Jewels!”  “Become the princess!”  “What could the challenge be?”

Once the noise had died down, the prince said, “Over the next thirty days, each maiden who participates will spend the night with a different one of my servants.  During those nights, my servants will use all of their cunning to seduce you.  For each successive night you remain pure, my servants will give you a jewel of greater and greater value!  After the thirty days are over, I will choose my bride from those who have remained pure.”

Thirty days passed.  On the thirty-first day, the prince once more called together all the maidens of the land.  They were all giggling, whispering and comparing their newly acquired jewels.  The prince had his servants count the jewels of each maiden.  Among the crowd, they found two maidens who had thirty jewels each!  They even found one lovely maiden who had no jewels at all.

The prince called forward the two maidens with the thirty jewels.  At the same time, a cruel servant brought forward the maiden with no jewels in order to mock her.  The prince, being a kind man, did not wish to humiliate the young maiden.  He dismissed the cruel servant and called the maiden over to speak with him quietly.

“My dear girl, how is it that you have not even a single jewel?”

The maiden, tears brimming in her eyes, said, “The jewels were not what I wanted, your highness.  I only wanted to be your wife, so I did what I would have done if I were your wife!  I kept myself from being where my purity could be challenged.  I did not participate at all.”

The next day, they were wed.