Every so often, I find it useful to review a definition of terms with my clients. The clarification helps to illuminate more understanding (of the client’s self and their experience) and the most relevant strategies for moving forward. It’s a kind of connect-the-dots approach.
With that in mind, let’s review the difference between Compassion, Empathy, and Sympathy. Having Compassion for someone means that you have feelings of sensitivity toward them. It means that you appreciate the person’s experience without understanding and without attempting to understand what they are going through. Having Empathy for someone means that you not only have an appreciation for what someone might be experiencing but that you also understand and identify with what they are going through. If you have Sympathy for someone, it means that you pity or feel sorry them.
Most often, when we are talking about relationship dynamics (any relationship), we hear that Empathy is a rewarding way to interact. It’s pretty clear why so many of us recommend establishing Empathy in relationship. Mutual understanding fosters trust, appreciation, and connectedness between people.
When you approach people, relationships, and experiences with Empathy you create a space of safety and openness. When people experience you as safe and open, they feel more comfortable. They are less likely to feel and act defensively and much more likely to respond to you in a calm and positive way. (Honestly, who doesn’t want to feel that their experience is appreciated and understood?)
Engaging Compassion is also positively impactful. While it’s not as powerful as Empathy (because it lacks a deeper understanding), it promotes a similar sense of safety within the relationship. I like to think of it as a useful starting point on the way to Empathy.
Sympathy is the least useful emotion since it involves no understanding, no attempt to understand, and no appreciation of an other’s experience. It connotes a kind of unilateral relationship between the sympathizer and the sympathizee. There is not much safety, openness, and connection where there is sympathy or pity. Often, Sympathy can create feelings of resentment in the sympathizee.
When you are feeling Empathic, you have less energy and room for irritability, indifference, and defensiveness. Difficult discussions are smoothed by this empathic, open, and safe space. Whether you are bringing a difficult topic to the discussion table or someone has approached you with something, the more empathy you employ, the more comfortable you will be as you work on the task.
At this point, I usually hear something like, “I need empathy, too. I don’t want to be the only one providing empathy here. What about them?!” And I get it. I don’t like my efforts of Empathy to go unmatched, either. They’re often not.Taking the initiative to create a safe place for connection is almost always reciprocated.
Some people might take a little longer than others to meet you with Empathy. Give it some time. On another hand, being the one to set the tone with Empathy also gives you the freedom and flexibility to try another approach as needed.
I’m curious to hear about how this works for you. Let me know so that we can talk about it!
Love and Be Loved,