Sympathy vs. Empathy
Even if they both end in -pathy, sympathy and empathy are not the same thing. This article is about the difference between the two and how as trainers, we can use the tool of empathy to improve the experience for the participants.
Why did I choose this tool?
As a trainer, I believe we often avoid feeling and expressing our emotions. We recognize other people’s emotional states and know what they’re feeling, and yet we avoid feeling those emotions ourselves. I chose this video by Brené Brown because for me it clearly describes the difference between identifying how someone feels and feeling that emotion with them. I believe as trainers, one of the most powerful ways we impact people is by taking our participants through emotional experiences and being right there with them. Also, I love how Brené Brown explains things and I believe she is a wealth of resources.
How does this apply to being a trainer?
I believe one of the most difficult aspects of being a trainer is to maintain professional boundaries while connecting on a human level. For many of us, I think we try so hard to be professional that we lose that human touch. Brené Brown talks about how sympathy is more about identifying how someone feels and empathy is more about feeling that feeling with them. She mentions how distant sympathy can feel and how close empathy can feel. When letting down our guard to start to feel the same emotions as the participants, and thus empathizing with them, we start to disintegrate our boundaries with the other and we become one in feeling. This can feel wonderful as a trainer, to feel so connected with the participants, and scary, as we may fear losing our position of authority as they see more of our humanity. The converse, sympathy, can maintain our distance from the participants and feel comfortable for the trainer, and also disappointing as we don’t reach the depth of learning that we or many of the participants may want.
The Nielsen-Norman Group, a company focused on user-experience design, articulates the difference between sympathy and empathy in a very simple way:
Sympathy: “I feel for you.”
Empathy: “I feel with you.”
Brené Brown helps to further distinguish between the two related concepts by giving examples of what sympathy sounds like and what empathy feels like.
She says examples of sympathy often start with what she calls “silver-lining” and begin with the words “at least”:
- “I had a miscarriage.”—“At least you know you can get pregnant.”
- “I think my marriage is falling apart.”—“At least you have a marriage.”
- “John’s getting kicked out of school.”—“At least Sarah is an A-student.”
These examples seem to show some understanding of the underlying suffering, but almost try to cheer the person up, bringing them from feeling “bad” to feeling “good”. The person saying them doesn’t seem to feel the pain that the receiver is feeling or even seem to be on the same team as that person.
Empathy, on the other hand, is about feeling those feelings with the person. Brown emphasizes that empathy relies on vulnerability and connection.
- “In order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”
- “Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.”
- “One of the things we do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations is we try to make things better. If I share something with you that’s very difficult I’d rather you say ‘I don’t even know what to say right now I’m just so glad you told me’ because the truth is rarely can a response make something better what makes something better is connection.”
In this way, empathy is about feeling the emotion with the person, bringing ourselves closer to the person, instead of just saying that we know what the person is feeling and maintaining or increasing our distance.
How do sympathy and empathy relate to vulnerability?
Brené Brown discusses a lot about vulnerability in her work. I think what she’s trying to convey in the video is that empathy requires a much deeper level of vulnerability than sympathy, and that for connection, we need that level of vulnerability—that level of opening ourselves up to whatever might happen.
For more information on Brown’s work, you can visit the Brain Pickings article about the video, which provides a few more references from her other work that addresses this topic, including the full-length video from which the animated video was created. She has also written many books on the topic of vulnerability and shame and you can find more at her website.
How can empathy be used as a trainer?
Empathy is a tool that can help us connect more deeply with the participants. As a trainer, this can help us do a variety of things, such as:
- Create a safe space for participants to express themselves.
- Identify problems earlier and resolve them earlier.
- Plan activities more relevant to the participants.
- Learn more about ourselves and others.
- Create relationships that last beyond the training.
What may happen if we don’t empathize with participants?
- They may think we don’t like them.
- They may feel alone.
- They may disconnect from the learning experience.
- They may disconnect from the other participants.
- They may feel scared of us.
- They may hesitate to open up.
- They may give low scores on evaluation even if it seemed as if they appreciated the training.
- They may want to leave early.
Feeling what another person is feeling is natural, and also can be taboo. As trainers, it takes courage to show the humanity underneath our professional identities so that we can connect with the humanity of our participants—by doing so, we can create an environment in which they have the support they need to go outside of their comfort zone to grow.
- Which emotions do you not want to feel with your participants?
- Which emotions do you easily feel with your participants?
- Which emotions do you find difficult to express to your participants?
- Which emotions do you find easy to express to your participants?
- Who is one person in your life who shows more empathy than sympathy?
- Who is one person in your life who shows more sympathy than empathy?
- Would you rather be close to the participants or maintain a professional distance from them? Why?
- Watch the video with someone else and reflect with each other afterwards.
- Write a journal entry talking about one time when someone sympathized with you and one time when someone empathized with you and then how those two experiences felt different.
- Write your own definitions of the words empathy and sympathy, using simple clear language.
- Ask someone if they will let you practice empathy with them and when they are speaking, try to feel everything they are feeling.