Empathy and sympathy are closely related, but how are they different? In this article, we search for the answer and understand the importance of putting oneself in the shoes of others and learning to see the world through their eyes.
Sympathy is the feeling of pity or sharing the sorrow of someone else while empathy is the ability to look at the situation from the other’s perspective and understand the feelings of the other.
“Meeting friends on video calls is not very different from work meetings. The same desk at home, the same laptop screen, and the same ambience. It’s just that the names and faces seem more friendly and appealing,” said Rahul to Anjali as they waited for their friends to join. In the next five minutes, it was a full house and the gang was ready to share the happenings of the week. In order to beat the pandemic blues, the group had decided that they would discuss only the bright side of life on these weekly catch-ups. This group called themselves ‘The Incredibles’ and strongly believed in driving positive culture wherever they went. They embarked on this mission when they first met at the university and have remained steadfast ever since.
Anthony had a great story to share this week and his eagerness was evident as his video was on and he was already off mute! “Guys, the power of leadership is only when the leader sees the team members as humans. I have seen one of the most brilliant examples at work last week!” started off Anthony. He works for a large private bank and being declared as essential services, he and his colleagues had worked pretty much throughout the lockdowns. One of the junior executives in his branch had tested COVID positive and had resumed work last week. Anthony’s branch manager gave this young guy a lot of relaxation in timing and also did not overload him with work.
Other team members were also instructed to offer help as much as they could so that he is not fatigued. “I am so proud of my branch manager. He knows what a COVID patient has to go through and is so full of empathy,” said Anthony. Tina was quick to catch and she exclaimed, “Aren’t you saying that your manager showed sympathy to your teammate? Empathy is way too different!”
Many managers consider task-oriented skills such as monitoring and planning to be more important in controlling the performance of their team members. But there is substantial research that shows that understanding, caring, and developing others is just as important, if not more important, particularly in today’s workforce.
Sympathy Vs Empathy
All eyes turned towards Anjali, the wise one in the group to clarify this point. Suddenly noticing the awkward silence on the screen, Anjali spoke up with clarity and authority on the subject. “Sympathy is the feeling of pity or sharing the sorrow of someone else while empathy is the ability to look at the situation from the other’s perspective and understand the feelings of the other.” With curiosity coming in the form of more videos turning on, Anjali continued to explain with an example. “Think of yourself by the sidewalk of a busy road. There is someone out there, who has had an accident. If you were to show them sympathy, you would involve yourself, telling them about a time when you also met with an accident.
You would recreate the scene with you in it and then you’re both in pain and nobody is able to help. Here you express sympathy. If you were to share empathy, you would try to help them analyse what went wrong and how the accident occurred. It is like you are understanding their problem and accepting that it is an issue for them, but not making the situation about you. You stand outside of the issue as a source of comfort.” There was a quick reaction with “thumbs up” appearing on all the participant tiles on the call.
Tina, the one-line wizard took this ahead by typing a quick one on the chatbox. ‘Empathy is about looking through your eyes’. The discussion now gained a new direction and Raj, the analytical expert, started to break it down into chewable concepts of ‘Pitfalls in Empathetic Leadership’.
When a leader puts empathy to work, she/he has to learn to detach himself from it and look at the situation from the other’s viewpoint. This detachment happens only if she/he does not bring about self-judgments. If the leader is judgmental, it is obvious that it is the leader’s brain that is analyzing the situation, and therefore it is not the perspective of the other person! It can then turn into sympathy. Easy as it may sound, this transition is not something that would come about automatically!
Getting engulfed by bias
Assuming that the leader is successful in looking at the situation through the eyes of the team member when it comes to helping the latter solve the problem, the leader needs to be her/his true self and add valuable experience. The leader is not expected to simply sympathize or feel sorry but has to be open to share her/his experience in a similar situation and facilitate a solution. At this stage, the leader has to bring to the forefront her/his authentic self.
4 Steps to Build Empathetic Leaders
Step1: Let leaders know that empathy matters: Many managers consider task-oriented skills such as monitoring and planning to be more important in controlling the performance of their team members. But there is substantial research that shows that understanding, caring, and developing others is just as important, if not more important, particularly in today’s workforce.
Step 2: Teach listening skills: When a manager is a good listener, people feel respected, and trust can grow. Managers should focus on listening and try to understand the meaning behind what others are saying by paying attention to not only the words being said, but also the feelings and values being shown, through nonverbal cues such as tone, pace of speech, facial expressions, and gestures.
Step 3: Cultivate compassion: Encourage Support Managers who care about how others feel, and consider the effects that business decisions have on employees, customers, and communities. Go beyond the predictable values statement and allow time for compassionate reflection and response.
Step 4: Encourage genuine perspective taking: Managers should be coached to consistently put themselves in the other person’s place. For managers, this includes taking into account the personal experience or perspective of their employees. It also can be applied to solving problems, managing conflicts, or driving innovation. It’s helpful to understand the role social identity plays for you and others.
Cognitive Empathy is the ability to understand a person’s current state of mind and emotions. It is the form of empathy that helps improve communications, as it boosts your ability to relay information.
With discussion going deeper and deeper, ‘The Incredibles’ decided to quickly summarize their learnings and call it a week before they plunged into the weekend digital detox mode. Alok brought up the whiteboard and typed “Empathetic leadership is all about looking through your eyes but authentically being in my skin!”
The group signed off with yet another learning and looking forward to more!