Empathy is easily confused with sympathy and their meanings are very similar. Indeed, some dictionaries will even give you almost identical meanings.
This is my understanding of the differences. When we are being sympathetic we are expressing our feelings of sorrow and pity for someone else’s misfortune. We are sorry for them.
When we are being empathetic we are trying to put ourselves in their shoes and understand the position they hold, or find themselves in. We don’t necessarily sympathise or agree with their view, but we will try to understand it.
For example, when I worked with young offenders it was helpful for me to try and empathise without condoning. I tried for a while to put myself in their shoes and understand why they behaved as they did. But I didn’t sympathise! Being empathetic did not mean that I was agreeing with what they did.
Difficult Work Colleague?
If you have a colleague that sometimes irks you or that you find difficult to deal with, try being empathetic for a day. Try to develop your skills and ‘read’ them emotionally by creatively imagining yourself in their shoes. Try to suspend your usual judgements about them and really listen to what they are saying.
Ask them questions about their position and try to get to the root of their concerns. Keep your own feelings on hold for a day while you listen to what they have to say. This will help you lead discussions in a more positive manner and hopefully develop a better relationship for you both. It can also be really useful when you are ‘stuck’ in a situation and need to move things forward.
How do you deal with fellow professionals when they are really getting on your wick? I’d love to hear!
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