What Is Empathy?

Empathy is a quality often labelled ‘desirable’ or ‘essential’ in job descriptions for roles such as Mentors; but are the terms really understood?  For instance, is it widely known that empathy is not the same as sympathy?

While, feeling sympathetic towards someone means we ‘feel for’ them, this sense of togetherness still stems from an outsider’s point of view.  This means that we could misinterpret others’ (levels of) reactions and even feelings regarding a situation, thus seeming out of touch.  We might, conversely, focus too much on any similarities between ourselves and someone else, leading us to adopt their feelings as our own, as if our own life were impacted upon.  Moreover, a sense of sympathy often leads us to want to help the other in some way, by perhaps giving lots of advice, relaying personal anecdotes, or jumping in with comments rather than just listening.  After all, it is natural and reasonable to want to be caring and helpful.

Empathy, though, goes beyond sympathy, and beyond ourselves, to focus wholly on the other person.  It consists of careful listening and reading of body language, as well as the reflecting of another’s words, gestures, and emotions.  Therefore, empathy requires a high level of awareness of other people’s current feelings (also, if possible, the feelings they hint at but cannot explicitly express), along with their general outlook, as well as their situation.

This all takes some sense of imagination on the part of the empathiser, to almost share the experience and take into account a fuller picture of the other’s personality and background.  It is a useful skill, though, to draw a person out, by showing that we really ‘get’ who that person is, what they are trying to say, and the reasons they have for their feelings and actions.

An important caveat, however, is that empathy does not necessitate agreeing with the other person.  Although we might imagine ourselves in their life, with their resources, and thus their feelings in a given situation, we would still retain our sense of self for our own sake, as well as theirs.

As a working example, there are two friends: Louise and Emma.  Louise is super-efficient, career-driven, and has a car, while Emma is changing career direction, does not have a car, and is more disorganised, though every bit as conscientious as her friend.  On the day of a job interview, Emma calls Louise on the phone, crying, and tells her friend that she has missed the last bus she could get to make it to the interview on time.

As Emma’s friend, Louise may well be expected to care about Emma’s situation and thus her initial sympathetic response might be: ‘I’m sorry you missed the bus,’ or ‘I know how you feel.’   This would possibly be followed up with a flurry of advice about getting a taxi, or calling the interviewers to rearrange the appointment; a memory of a time when Louise was in trouble; platitudes about this not mattering in the ‘grand scheme of things’; or even a comparison of the two friends, by which Louise is shown – probably inadvertently – to leave plenty of extra time before travelling for important meetings, while Emma has not.

Alternatively, Louise’s initial empathetic response might be: ‘It must be upsetting for you to miss the last bus, and interviews are already stressful experiences.’ Dependent upon Emma’s response, there may be further discussion about her feelings, before some open questions on Louise’s part, as to how Emma plans to proceed.

On the surface, the sympathetic response seems nurturing and helpful. But might there be times when Emma (or someone Louise does not know as well) wonders if Louise really is sorry, or really does know how her friend feels? Moreover, the stream of advice might make Emma feel increasingly helpless, with any comparisons between the two friends running a big risk of alienating Emma, whose feelings are strong and about immediate events, while she does not wish to be insulted because she does not organise her time like her friend. This is especially the case when we consider any number of reasons, besides her stereotypical disorganisation, that may have led to her lateness, such as wardrobe malfunctions. Another point to mention is that Louise is also possibly going to feel low for the rest of the day and be just as worried about Emma’s interview.

An empathetic response, instead, would not convey any sense of evaluation or judgement, persuasion, condescension, or any portrayal of Louise’s feelings or experiences. Those do not matter right now to Emma. Emma simply wants to be heard and understood. Perhaps, having this sounding board will also help her to control her emotions, and then refocus on solving the problem of getting to her interview. Hopefully, she would feel more empowered as a result of the conversation too, as no doubt will Louise, who will probably feel happy simply to have been there to listen.

It must be said, of course, that empathy does not exclude warmth. I cannot but hope that in such a scenario, for instance, Louise would meet Emma later that same day and offer her a hug, if not a lift to the actual interview as a one off! Rather, the key difference between sympathy and empathy is focus. Who is the conversation about, and whose feelings are really being considered?

So it seems empathy is maybe more complex than first appears. It may also, arguably, be much harder to achieve, and not always sufficient without some level of compassion. But it is also potentially more useful to the person on the receiving end, like our mentees. Therefore, having carried out this research, I will endeavour to develop this skill within my future sessions, as well as in my personal life.  I hope other Mentors may benefit from this research too.

Reference links on this topic:







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