How Do You Use Empathy?

26 Aug

empathyThere are many different understandings of empathy, and today we’re going to show you just how ranging these interpretations can be. Personally, I feel that empathy is a way we understand and appreciate how others feel. It’s not sympathy even though, like sympathy, there is an interest in someone’s feelings. But Sympathy implies two things that empathy doesn’t:

1)      We can understand person’s position on a matter

2)      We feel sorry for them.

The ‘feeling sorry’ can be okay at times, but at others it may not be the best approach to understanding and appreciating another person’s experience.

In my definition of empathy, being empathetic is a key component of leadership. To inspire others, you have to know where they are at.

Let’s say you want to pull your team together around a particular strategy. The most successful leaders will tailor their communication to the team’s feelings about where they are at about the challenge at bay. If team member are on boards with strategy from the beginning, relatively little encouragement will be necessary. If team members are opposed to a particular strategy, leaders need to hear the objections so that they can overcome them. Without good empathy skills, the leader may misread the situation and not use the more effective strategy.

So that’s my approach to empathy. We recently asked the MHS Emotional Intelligence Assessment forum on Linkedin a to clarify between empathy and sympathy. Here is just a selection of responses:

“… Sympathy and sometimes even compassion are reactive responses humans have to events. Empathy should be the proactive approach, side, skill if you will, that managers and/or leaders should have.” Christina Canales

Empathy is what you feel when you are able to put yourself “into another person’s shoes” especially if you have also had similar experiences or feelings. We all enjoy empathetic understanding and responses from others.” Luciana Whipple, LPC-S

Personally, sympathy is sadness felt for someone who has experienced a loss; empathy is the ability to put myself aside and understand and know the feelings that another is experiencing, and compassion is a mindset of caring and acceptance.” Linda Vaughn, CPSM, PMP

Here is some paraphrasing from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary which is useful for clarifying the distinctions: Empathy is the capacity for participation in anothers’ feelings. Sympathy includes the actual joining with others (not just the capacity for doing so) and adds being affected by their feeling. Compassion is the experience of another’s distress coupled with a desire to alleviate it.” Karl Grass

One way I’ve heard empathy described by one of my mentors Jan Johnson of Learning International is both being able to read others and caring about them. If you only have one or the other, you don’t have empathy.” Nina Simonds, PCC

cararesourcesSo as you see, there are wide ranging responses when it comes to understanding the differences between empathy and sympathy.  And now it’s your turn. We’re going to ask you three questions for this week’s exercise. You are welcome to respond in the comments section, or if you prefer to keep your thoughts private you can answer aloud or write your thoughts down.

Here come the questions!

1.       In your opinion, what is the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion? How do you ensure you display these differently?

2.       Describe a situation where you found it difficult to make a decision because of the way the outcome might impact others, what was the result of your decision?

3.       Can you share a time when it was really important that you were able to understand the way someone else felt? How did you convey this understanding? How did you ensure you understood them?

Sharing is encouraged. We’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

Till next week!


Camille Boivin is founder of Sister Leadership, certified in EQi 2.0 and EQ360, a master practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), has been coaching high-level women and men for over six years, and is now opening her expertise to those emerging in business. Camille pulls her blog topics from her unique coaching approach that combines her training as a EQi 2.0 and EQ360 certified facilitator with the dig-deeper tools of NLP.

Get in touch here if you’d like to talk with Cam about group or one-on-one coaching, and EQ assessments. With the miracle of Skype and telephones – distance is no issue!


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