One of my favorite questions that I ask my students is this: what is the difference between sympathy and empathy? From my youngest students to my high school students, they almost always have a difficult time answering the question. If someone were to ask you the difference right now, would you be able to answer? Whether or not you can articulate the difference right off the top of your head, understanding sympathy and empathy and the nuanced difference between the two is very important when it comes to your relationships, especially your workplace relationships.
Empathy Vs. Sympathy
The word empathy derives from Greek en “in” and pathos “feeling”.1 Sympathy comes from syn “together” and pathos “feeling”. As indicated by their different prefixes, empathy is putting yourself into someone’s experience – being in someone’s emotions – whereas sympathy is feeling compassion for someone’s emotions or experiences.
Both are powerful and important means of connecting with others. Unlike sympathy, however, practicing empathy gives you the advantage of actually feeling and experiencing what someone else is feeling and experiencing. No emotional gap is too far to bridge for empathy! If we aren’t sure how to relate to someone’s emotion, we possess the ability to use our imagination to ascribe our feelings to people, objects, or circumstances.2 In this wonderful way, empathy empowers us to connect with anyone.
Empathy in the Workplace
When thinking about the importance of empathy in the workplace, the biological principle of co-evolution is important to consider: co-evolution is the principle that changes in environment or condition trigger the adaptation of an organism. Those that don’t adapt simply don’t survive in the long run. In an article about the driving force of empathy in business, Forbes points out that businesses and business leaders “participate in co-evolution-type relationships.”3 Success depends on business leaders’ ability to engage in their environment, build on strengths around them, and adapt as necessary. Empathy is the vehicle by which engagement, connection, empowerment, and adaptation can be achieved.
Four Strategies to Build Empathy
Unsurprisingly, each of the following strategies is a communication strategy. Communication is the means for building and achieving empathy.
1. Don’t Multitask During Conversations
Empathy is strong connection, and strong connection isn’t possible if you are trying to engage multiple things at once. When you are in conversation with someone, even over the phone or video call, put everything aside for the time being and fully engage with whomever you are communicating. This will allow you to observe nonverbal cues such as body language that will help you embed yourself in what the other person is experiencing.
2. Use Your Team Members’ Names
Remember when your mom or dad got really angry and they used your full name to get your full attention? As scary as that may have been, it served a purpose. Using someone’s name is a powerful way to capture their attention and an effective way to show a personal engagement and connection. Impersonal communication and empathy don’t mix well. Using someone’s name is a great way to show investment in a conversation.
3. Acknowledge the Other Person’s Perspective
The meat and potatoes of empathy is entering into someone’s perspective and relating to it. One of the best ways to show you are doing this is to verbally acknowledge the other person’s perspective. Doing so will help the other person feel understood, build trust, and reinforce connection. The more you practice this, the easier it will become, and the wider range of perspectives you will be able to understand and inherently relate to.
4. Practice Applied Improvisation
This is a catch-all tactic. Practicing applied improvisation will help you implement the first three strategies because improv inherently strengthens your ability to communicate both effectively and empathetically. The core precept of improv is “Yes/And” which, said differently, is a commitment to receiving and accepting someone’s idea or perspective, empathetically engaging with it, and building off it to create something new.
As you develop your listening and communication skills in improv, you explore games and strategies aimed to heighten emotional awareness and exercise imaginative empathy. It’s no accident that most of today’s top businesses use improvisation courses for their leadership training and development.