Empathy vs Sympathy

There are many times when we don’t know what to say. A friend’s spouse is ill, someone doesn’t get the promotion they really wanted, or someone is just having a really down day. We feel stumped and either say nothing or end up saying something we later think is stupid or wrong.

In my job teaching medical residents, I work with them on empathy and how to use empathic words. Often, however, what comes out is just “I’m sorry.”

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When we talk about empathy, we really mean trying to stand in someone else’s shoes (metaphorically) and feel what they are feeling. Sometimes my medical residents will say “ But I am not a 50-year-old man who had a heart attack, how can I feel what he is feeling?” Well, it is true you have not experienced the same situation, but what do you think he is feeling if he ate healthy food and jogged five days a week, and still had a heart attack? Frustrated, disappointed, scared? I ask them “Was there ever a time in your life when you did everything right, and things still did not go your way?” That is the kind of question you have to ask yourself in order to stand in his shoes.

Recently I showed the medical residents a very short but wonderful animated clip about the difference between empathy and sympathy done by Dr. Brene Brown:  Empathy vs Sympathy YouTube Video. In less than three minutes Dr. Brown effectively teaches about the importance of empathy in making human connections and what the four steps are to being empathic. Not only will it make you laugh but the important teaching points will stick. I think you will love it!

Think about how you can use empathy in your everyday life, with your friends, employees, colleagues, and family. Empathy is the key to human connection, and in our difficult world today, we can all use more of that.