When someone is struggling, it is natural to feel for them if you are a caring, kind person. There is an important difference in how you deal with this feeling. Sympathy is the ability to feel concern for someone else but not the ability to step into their shoes and experience it from their perspective...
The problem with sympathy is not in the intention, it’s in the behaviour that results. Someone feeling sympathy is ‘making up’ a lot of the context and therefore can jump to conclusions as to how to assist. Sympathy is experiencing the situation as you would experience it, not doing your best to understand how the other person is experiencing it. Empathy involves getting to know the person, their personality and situation before taking action, this supports the person and respects their beliefs, values and attitudes to life. In NLP we teach people how to become more empathetic in what is known as ‘Second Position’ - standing in someones shoes as best you can.
There are some key reasons why Empathy is better than Sympathy:
Sympathy can come across as patronising
I know people whose families feel sorry for them because they are single. They are quite happy actually so the sympathy is misguided, these people are reacting to how THEY themselves would feel if they were single not how the other person actually feels.
Sympathy can lead to interfering and controlling behaviour
If we assume we know best for someone else, this is discounting their ability to think for themselves or come up with their own solutions.
Sympathy can be distressing for the person experiencing it
Because when people experience sympathy they are experiencing it as if they were them, it is likely to be more distressing. When a friend of mine had a miscarriage, she was understandably upset but it was made worse by how totally devastated some of her friends were. They were associating into it as if it had happened to them.
Build your empathy skills
Being less sympathetic and more empathetic is healthier for you and other people, here’s a few tips on helping to build your empathy abilities:
- Instead of jumping to conclusions ask people if they’d like to talk about it or would like some help. This gives them choice and therefore empowers them.
- Practice making distinctions between your own reactions to events and other peoples’, even happy events. The deeper your understanding of how different people are, the bigger capacity you have for empathy.
- Avoid making references to yourself when someone is suffering. Rather than say ‘I know how you feel’ - which you don’t, saying ‘that must be really tough for you’ or some way that refers to them. Sharing your own experiences can be useful when someone is in solution mode (and have more of their thinking abilities available to them), but when they are distressed (and mainly in feelings), keep it about them not you.
Founder of Monkey Puzzle and an INLPTA NLP Master Trainer, John is also a Clinical Hypnotherapist and author of the award winning book Real Leaders for the Real World. His new book Time Mastery; Banish Time Management Forever is out now.