Sympathetic to Empathy
For as long as I’ve been socially aware, I’ve struggled to know just how much of myself I should share with others. I’ve never had trouble playing the role of listening ear or shoulder to cry on, but when it comes time in the give and take of conversation, I can’t always balance the ability to respond empathetically with the need to express sympathy. My need for validation of shared experience drives me to show that I understand what someone is going through because I’ve been there in some way. But at the same time, I want the people I care about to know that I see their problems as unique to them and that I understand their need for support that isn’t divided.
The thing is, I never really understood what I was doing until recently reading a fresh take on the need for empathy verses sympathy in dealing with others. Especially others that may be relying on someone for support and strength in a particular situation. In addition to my budding midwifery education, I decided not long ago to pursue training as a Labor Doula to gain experience in the childbirth field from an angle of emotional and physical support. In addition to partnering with the Doula from my own recent labor, I enrolled in a course from Childbirth International, and part of the very practical education includes a communication assignment.
In the written study material for this assignment, sympathy is defined as “sharing of another’s feelings”, and empathy is defined as the “ability to identify with a person”. They sound similar, but in conversation, sympathy involves a whole lot more “I”s and statements of solidarity, whereas statements of empathy utilize “you” in ways that make a person sound like a licensed therapist, i.e. “It sounds like you’re feeling angry about what she said to you”. You know, stating the obvious and all that. Doesn’t sound like the better or more natural choice in a conversation, does it?
That’s what I thought at first. So much better to help someone feel that you truly understand rather than dole out useless terms of unquestionable observation. Right? Until I read this suggested article, by self help author Andrew LeCompte. In it, he describes what he calls “true empathy” and how we can utilize our listening and feedback skills to help others realize their full potential by taking more ownership for their choices, actions and even feelings. Suddenly, empathy isn’t just a way to identify what someone is struggling with, it’s a method of “listening for the other person’s positive intention or ‘hope'”. The article describes a scenario where one person’s reaction to a situation can change based on their perception of an outcome, rather than the actions of others. The author asserts that WE determine our reaction based on our hopes and intentions, and that in empathetic conversation, we can help each other to see the positive light of any situation and move toward it.
If this is true, then in our conversations with others we are in a position to either reinforce what their intial reactive feeling (snap judgment) toward a person or situation is, OR we can facilitate a way for them to see the positive potential and how they might go about making it a reality.
The author also points out that, “Hopes are the universal positive qualities and values that motivate our behavior….An amazing thing happens when we help another person get in touch with their motivating hope—they become conscious. The nature of their thinking shifts away from blaming people and events. Instead their thinking becomes positive. They think about the good things they want and begin to think about how to bring them about.” By more actively using our responses in conversation, we can help others to be more aware of their intentions. By raising their awareness, we can help others to see that initial judgements may have set them on the path to viewing a situation from a limited angle. We all have a way of self-reinforcing the reality that we assume is true by looking for evidence to back up our perspective, and at the same time ignoring indicators or facts that prove otherwise.
So how do we use true empathy to help others? Aside from a practical example in the article to show how this could work, LeCompte says we must “ask them to clarify what they are hoping for” rather than reinforce negative judgements. Not always easy, and not something we may be in the habit of doing with friends and family, much less co-workers. But in relationships and interactions where it is vital that the person feel supported making a positive change or decision, we can make all the difference in how we choose to respond.
How do you usually respond to other people sharing frustration, grief, or other negative emotions? Do you tend to be sympathetic or empathetic? Do you think there is a place for both? Do you feel a need to respond differently to those you care about after reading the article? How does “true empathy” help us to encourage others to make positive changes in their lives and worldview? How can this shift in perspective help us to motivate others on the path to enlightenment or even a feminist awakening? Do you see a pattern in the way you comment on blogs? Is it usually sympathetic or empathetic, or maybe a mix of both?