Empathy doesn’t mean getting caught up in people’s emotions and dramas. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is absorbing another’s emotions. When sympathizing, you often try to do or say something to ease both your and their discomfort. With compassionate and courageous empathy, they feel cared for and safe but valued as competent.
Empathy is understanding. Merriam-Webster says, “With empathy, you can imagine or understand how someone might feel, without necessarily having those feelings yourself.” You have empathy when you witness what others share without judging or analyzing how they are reacting. You accept why they feel the way they do. When people feel safe enough to express themselves because you acknowledge their experience, they will move into exploration and action more quickly.
You elevate psychological safety by receiving their words and emotions with caring curiosity.
Sympathy can sabotage empathy
You might physically feel their pain or anxiety. You might feel the need to take care of them. Notice these sensations so you can exhale and let them go. It is not your job to fix or heal them. Your job is to help them better understand why they feel what they do and how this relates to what they want to create for themselves going forward. If you interrupt the process by taking care of them with comforting words or advice, or you run to get a tissue without offering it first, you weaken their power. You inhibit their growth. They might feel guilty or sorry for upsetting you. They might feel they have to take care of you. You can break the bond of trust.
Most people long to feel seen, heard, and valued no matter what they express. They don’t need you to feel sad, stressed, angry, or anxious with them.
Ways to practice compassionate and courageous empathy (book excerpt from Breakthrough Coaching)
Compassionate and courageous empathy is when you identify, seek to understand, and appreciate what others feel, and then let go of feeling their reactions with them. When you feel patient and compassionate, you focus the conversation on them, not you. You remain their thinking partner when you practice compassionate and courageous empathy.
Practice and develop compassionate and courageous empathy in any conversation with these actions:
- Notice when emotions arise in your body—When you feel a point of tension or rumbling in your body, try to discern if you are sensing something your client is feeling or if it is your own reaction to what is occurring. If you aren’t sure if you are correctly picking up their energy, ask them what they are experiencing.
- If you share an emotion you think you are experiencing, tie it to the behavior you noticed—For example, you could say, “When you paused and looked away, there seemed to be sadness or confusion. Would you be willing to share what you are thinking and feeling right now?” or “Every time you talk about your current work team, you get agitated. Is there something about your relationship with them you would be willing to explore?”
- Quickly own and release your impulse to save the person, fix their problem, or share your own story that you think mirrors theirs—If you feel badly for them (sympathy) or want to tell them they are right to feel the way they do (commiserate), stay silent. Breathe and return to feeling curious and believing in their ability to move forward with your coaching. Stay silent while they process their thoughts. When their emotions begins to subside, you can ask if they would share what is on their mind.
- If they have trouble articulating what they are experiencing, ask if there is a connection to what they now understand to the problem or desired outcome they previously stated—For example, you might offer, “It feels as if you are hurt or sad by what is going on at work. Do you think there something important you are not getting from your situation?” or “I hear you trying to explain what is going on but your pattern of saying “but” in every sentence has me wondering if your fear of other people’s judgments is holding you back. What do you think is really holding you back from taking the steps you named?” Be quiet until they respond, giving them time to think about your statement.
- If they seem confused by what you are offering as a reflection or question, offer your thoughts in another way—rephrase your statements more concisely without explaining yourself, or accept they have a different meaning than you thought. Ask them what is important for them in this moment. Let them know you genuinely desire to understand what they are processing.
Remember, you are there to help them think through their situation, so they see what they want to do next. They will feel better if you let them move through their reactions at their own pace. It may take time for them to put the right words to what is emerging in their thoughts, but the new perceptions will eventually take form.