Empathy vs. Sympathy

Many of us confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling for a person. Empathy is feeling with a person—an important distinction. When we’re empathic, we not only put ourselves in others’ shoes, we go a step further and imagine the world from their perspective. Humans have an innate ability to do this. The mirror neurons in our brains pick up other people’s conscious and unconscious cues. This triggers our own feelings and thoughts, allowing us to align with others. Our brain waves actually sync.

Interestingly, my work with younger executives down in the pitoften reveals high empathy in emotional intelligence. When coaching these younger executives, we talk about the dark side of empathy – sympathy – and how they would know the difference. I further explain empathy with the analogy of a friend being stuck in a pit. Empathy is when you stand on the edge of the pit and help your friend climb out. Sympathy is when you get into the pit (or fall in) with your friend. Any effort to get out is futile and perhaps the pit gets deeper.

Sympathy has its place when appropriate, but empathy is critical if your goals include persuading others, reaching mutually beneficial solutions, or building connection and influence.

Members of high-performing teams consistently show high levels of empathy for one another. They care enough to ask:

  • What makes you who you are?
  • What do you really care about?

Mastering Everyday Empathy

Authors Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar offer three key guidelines for everyday empathy in Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire (Gotham Books, 2004). The first guideline is to:

  • Learn what makes a person tick.
 Make it a goal to find out more about people: what they like, what they dislike, and what they are passionate about. The mere act of asking a question or two clears the way for future conversations and collaboration. It doesn’t take much time, doesn’t annoy anyone (unless done inappropriately) and can be FUN. Of course, it’s easier with people you like and more difficult with someone you dislike or mistrust. Try it with a wide range of people to see how asking questions improves communication.

Empathic Executives = Great Places to Work and Great Profits

When working with executive teams, I observe their interactions in the boardroom with one another and when receiving information and feedback from their employees and customers. I bring their attention to examples of deep active listening and how raising their level of empathy will engage high performance throughout their organization.

I also observe examples of empathy in the daily interactions of employees with their peers and their customers. The positive effects of a high level of empathy in an organization can be seen in employee engagement and peak performance; and in customer reviews, loyalty, and referrals. The overall return on investment is a great place to work and great profits.

Measuring Your Level of Empathy

How well you ask questions of others and really get to know the people you work with and whom you serve is a good indication of how much you engage in empathic conversations.

Learning more about the people you work with is key. It’s not difficult, and the time and effort is priceless. An awareness and conscious effort is required as you take your empathy to a higher level. You can begin by asking yourself “How often do I start conversations with the intent to see, hear and appreciate people?”

If you are looking for qualitative measurement of your empathy and/or your executive team’s empathy, you will be interested in the emotional intelligence assessments – EQi 2.0 and EQ360.

Taking empathy to the next level in the workplace is something I focus on when working with clients to create great places to work and build great profits. Find out how to take your empathy to another level. Contact me at patricia@maestroquality.com, at 905-858-7566, on LinkedIn, or on Maestro’s Facebook page.

Books and Audiobooks

The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, Third Edition, Steven J. Stein, Ph.D. and Howard E. Book, M.D.

On iTunes

Assessment for Measuring Empathy

For information about qualified administration and briefing of the following assessment, contact Patricia at patricia@maestoquality.com or call 905-858-7566

EQ – Emotional Intelligence – EQi 2.0 and EQ 360

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