Be Empathetic Not Sympathetic
Put yourself in the other’s shoes, but don’t walk their path for them
Isn’t Sympathy a Good Thing?
“Oh you poor thing. What happened to you is just terrible! You must feel awful. I wish there was something I could do.”
Do these words sound familiar? Maybe you’ve used them on a friend or relative who suffered a back break, or perhaps you’ve heard them yourself from a well-meaning friend at a time when something went wrong for you.
Words like these are usually expressed by well-meaning people in the form of “sympathy” to someone they care about. But imagine yourself hearing these words right now. How do they make you feel? Loved, cared for, empowered? Or helpless, victimized, and just plain bad?
Though sympathy is a socially acceptible gesture, I suggest that you stop using it and accepting it from others. It doesn’t help you or them. Empathy is a far superior form of expression. Let me explain.
Sympathy or Empathy?
So what’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? Sympathy, while highly valued in our culture, can actually be very disempowering. The sympathetic perspective tends to place you above the other, placing you in a position that might sound something like, “Oh you poor thing, this is just terrible what’s happening to you.” This behavior on your part will actually enable the limited worldview of a person operating from a victim state of mind, and is less likely to help them move to a healthy resolution of their problem.
On the other hand, coming from an empathetic perspective, you understand what the other is feeling but don’t necessarily “go there” with them. Instead, you view them as capable of working through the issue at hand. If you were being empathetic to someone in pain, you might say something like, “I sense that you’re hurting right now. Is there anything you need or any support I can offer to help you through this?”
This stance is one of understanding and one that places the responsibility for getting the necessary help in the hands of the person who needs it. Don’t rescue! Many people play the victim role so that others can play the rescuer role. Give people the opportunity to find the strength they need and you will both gain.
Practice using empathy the next time you’re in a situation where someone is suffering emotionally. Assuming this person is an otherwise functional and healthy human being, be present with them in an effort to understand what you might be feeling in a similar situation. Don’t try to have their feelings. Instead, trust that they have the inner resources necessary to solve their problems and to get the help they need to move forward. Let them feel their feelings, express their concerns, and shed their tears. Don’t try to fix anything for them. Just be with them with your heart open and with an inner and outer certainty that their’s is just one perception of their current reality and that they will find strength in your silent witness to their temporary fantasy of limitation.
About the Author:
Steve Davis, M.A., M.S., is an Facilitator's Coach, Infoprenuer, and free-lance human, helping facilitators, organizational leaders, educators, trainers, coaches and consultants present themselves confidently, access their creativity, empower their under-performing groups, enhance their facilitation skills, and build their business online and offline. Subscribe to his free weekly ezine at www.MasterFacilitatorJournal.com.
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