We talk about being sympathetic and empathetic, but do we use them correctly and can we all be empathic? I wondered about this some time now and decided to dig a bit deeper.

To understand this fine line let me give you some definitions I came across.

Showing sympathy means we have feelings of sorrow, pity for someone else’s misfortune. It is an understanding and support between people, based on the feeling that one cares about somebody’s trouble or grief. But we do not need to be deeply involved.

Empathy again goes deeper, you put yourself into the other person’s shoes and kind of experience their emotions. You have the ability to understand and share the feeling of another person. Some say empathy is the key element to Emotional Intelligence. (*)

Daniel Goleman (author of the book Emotional Intelligence) states “that understanding others by empathy is sensing others feelings and perspectives and taking an active interest in their concerns.”

So, I may say that sympathy is kind of an acknowledgement of the others person’s feeling whereas empathy goes a step deeper, to be emotional involved with the other person’s feeling. Both happening when the other person experiences something bad.
And it may be easier or more natural to show empathy if you had similar experiences. Yet such a situation has to be treated carefully as we may experience the same but have different feelings and emotions about it!

Having those definitions, do you think empathy can be learned or developed?

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I would leave it with a yes and no as this very much depends on the person itself. The theory and definition is an easy way to understand empathy but it takes more to really be empathetic.

It is easy to say that if everybody would just be more empathetic we would all be at a better state. But we cannot forget that sometimes we need to protect ourselves, too. Not everybody can or wants to be empathetic all the time. At times we decide to close ourselves off for our own protection, and that needs to be accepted. Being empathetic can be overwhelming at times. It is ok to have an ‘empathy on-off switch’ as self-protection is important, too!

Then you have certain personality traits that have problems to be empathetic or to receive empathy. And that is a tough one as especially those personalities often see themselves as being very empathetic and say that want to feel it from others. Yet the reality looks different and both side may end up feeling hurt and misunderstood.  But once we come to understand the personality trait of a person we may be able to change our expectations and just accept that empathy is not their strength, for neither giving or receiving. And that is ok, too, but both sides have to find a way how to deal with it.

And some personality traits are simply empathetic by nature and do not see what all this talk about empathy is about. And they may be envied by some and misjudged by others.

But either way, empathy is a good thing! And bringing our ‘empathy-awareness’ back into our daily life is the right way to go. See it like planting a seed and hoping to see it grow and spread. Therefore I leave you with a few simple ideas on how to use empathy in the day-to-day life as found under mindtools.com. A simple way to learn to be more aware of empathy around us!

  1. Put aside your viewpoint and try to see things from the others person’s point of view
    – the other person reacts to a situation with the knowledge they have – not your knowledge!
    – especially if you experienced a similar situation be aware to not put your feelings into it as the other person’s feelings may be totally different
    2) Validate the other person’s perspective
    – you do not have to agree, but acknowledge and accept a different opinion
    3) Examine your attitude
    – are you more concerned with getting your way, or being right? Or is it your priority to find a solution, build relationships and accept others?

4) Listen – really listen to the other person
– Listen to what is being said and the tone how it is being said
– Listen with your eyes by watching the person’s body language
– Listen with your instincts to see if you sense that perhaps something is not being said
– Listen with your heart and think what the other person feels

Empathy is like putting yourself in the other person’s shoe –
not putting your shoe onto the other person! 

I invite you to join me in planting the seed of empathy, today and everyday!

Have a lovely day,

AK

(*) Emotional Intelligence
Understanding yourself, your goals, intentions, responses behaviour and all.
Understanding others and their feelings.

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