What is Empathy?
First, what do I mean when I am talking about empathy?
The easiest way to explain empathy is ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’. That just means that you’re being aware of the thoughts and feelings of somebody else, and that you understand and appreciate those thoughts and feelings.
Importantly, you must do this without judgement, which means that even if you don’t agree with the other person, even if you think their thoughts and feelings are crazy, stupid or ridiculous, you still don’t judge them.
This is why being empathetic is so hard. But empathy is powerful because it enables you to create better relationships, and to find collaborative solutions rather than creating an antagonistic experience.
empathy is powerful because it enables you to create better relationships, and to find collaborative solutions rather than creating an antagonistic experience
Fight or Flight
Let’s say you have an employee who is always calling in sick at the last minute, and it disrupts the project team. The rest of the team is getting really annoyed with this employee.
You could go straight into a conversation with the employee and tell them there is an issue, and it’s affecting the whole team. Although sometimes this can be effective, it could also trigger an ‘amygdala hijack’ in the late employee, which means it triggers their fight or flight response.
Fight response If this happens they could become very defensive and start arguing back. For example they’ll give you all the reasons they were sick, why they couldn’t come in, why they had to cancel at the last minute. It’s never their fault, of course! But they have gone into fight mode.
Flight response Or they could completely shut down and not engage in the conversation just hoping that it will end. For example they’ll just say ‘Yep, yep, yep, yep. I’m going to be on time from now on’. And then, of course, they’re not on time.
Neither of these reactions support behaviour change.
The Empathetic Approach
If you take an empathetic approach, you might start by asking, ‘is everything okay?’ This changes the whole conversation. It opens the conversation, so the employee might say things like:
Actually, my child is sick at home
I’m really worried about my elderly relative.
My partner is really sick and I’m trying to convince them to go to the doctor, but they won’t go.
There could be a whole myriad of reasons behind the lateness. So once you ask, ‘hey, is everything, okay?’, you’re showing that you are ready to listen and to understand. You can still have the conversation about why it’s a problem, but you’re doing it through the lens of empathy, because you’re putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Your aim is to find an outcome that will work for the employee in their situation, but also to give the project team what they need – perhaps getting someone else on board temporarily, changing the schedule, or having the employee agree to provide more notice if they will be late.
Empathy vs Sympathy
So what’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? An easy way to explain is that sympathy starts with ‘I’ statements. For example, if you were providing condolences, you would say ‘I was sad to hear…’.
Using sympathy instead of empathy can result in someone feeling that they haven’t been heard, because ‘I’ statements could mean that I’m focusing on myself. I might compare the situation to something that happened to me, and that doesn’t allow the person to feel heard.
Empathy is putting ourselves into someone else’s shoes, while sympathy is essentially feeling sorry for them. That’s why sympathy is great when we’re giving condolences, when there has been a tragedy. But when someone’s trying to explain to you what’s going on in their life, so that you can understand them, sympathy is often not the right thing.