Empathy Vs. Sympathy: How to Encourage Authentic Conversations

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Do you know the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Do you have good listening skills? Do you have a habit of trying to find the silver lining in the face of a difficult conversation? Or do you embrace a struggling friend, allowing them to ‘be’ in their painful place without any judgements/suggestions?

Shame and empathy researcher Dr. Brené Brown explores this topic in the charming short film, The Power of Empathy.

If a friend or family member is struggling, Brown argues that a clever reply/suggestion cannot make it better. In fact, she says that connecting and listening is key to an empowering conversation between friends.

And that connection often requires mutual vulnerability.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity,” Brown says. “If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

In the short film, Brown outlines the importance of listening, connecting, and allowing our loved ones to debrief.

“Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection,” Brown says.

She goes on to describe empathy as a “sacred space” which allows people to express from their “deep hole” and say, “I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed.”

“Empathy is feeling with people,” she continues.

On the other hand, Brown says, ”Rarely does an empathic response begin with, ‘At least.’” But she says we do this all the time ”because someone has just shared with us something that is incredibly painful and we’re trying to ‘silver-line’ it.”

Brown shares examples of responding with sympathy, not empathy:

  • “I had a miscarriage.” Sympathy would say: “At least you know you can get pregnant.”
  • “I think my marriage is falling apart.” Sympathy would say: “At least you have a marriage.”
  • “John’s getting kicked out of school.” Sympathy would say: “At least Sara is an A-student.”

Brown says that in the face of difficult conversations, we try to make things better. Instead of responding with sympathy, she suggests an empathic response, such as: ”I don’t know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.”

To see the short film outlining how we can engage empathy, not sympathy, watch the short film below…

I love this simple, yet powerful message. I know I’ve been guilty of ‘silver-lining’ people’s problems more than once. But Brown is right: in the face of hard times, all we really want is to be seen and heard. We are not looking for a magical answer to make it better — all we want is empathy.

I observe this all the time, especially on Facebook. When an overwhelmed mom shares her latest ‘frazzled mommy moment’ on her timeline – whether the baby has dropped her nap, or her preschooler is sick again, or the sleep deprivation has gotten to be a bit much – all she really wants to hear is: “That sucks,” or, “Sending my love.”

That frazzled mom doesn’t want you to ‘fix’ it, and hear your best baby nap suggestions, or that Vicks-VapoRub-rub-in-the-socks trick. All she wants to hear is that you empathize with her, you have been there, and your thoughts are with her.

Same goes for your friend that just lost her mother. She does not want to hear, “At least you still have your dad and your kids are healthy.” Additionally, she doesn’t need to know about your own mother’s latest health issue. What she needs is to be heard.

It’s okay to be mutually vulnerable and not have all the answers.

If you want to engage in authentic and loving conversations with your friends and family, leave your judgements/suggestions aside and try to ‘be’ with them. Encouraging your friend to talk  - while you listen and keep your personal experiences to yourself – will create a safe and empathic place for your friend.

What do you think about this definition of sympathy vs. empathy? Can you relate?

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