Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What Is Empathy?

At some point, I began to realize that I have a tough time watching gut-wrenching movies or listening to dramatic stories without being flooded with emotions. I thought being sympathetic in this way was a good path to connect with people.

What I've learned since then is that there is a huge difference between sympathy and empathy. While listening to someone's story, trying to identify with the other person's pain is a matter of sympathy. I would put myself in their shoes and see what feelings I would have in that situation. Apparently I was good at finding those feelings and emotions.

Or perhaps we look into our own history to find a similar story, or one that produced similar feelings. My mistake was in assuming that I knew what feelings the other person had actually experienced. Inevitably, by relating what happened to me and how I felt, I sound like I am engaging in brinkmanship so I can feel superior in the depth of my emotions and feelings.

Empathy is about observing and honoring. Listening isn't about how much I can identify with your feelings or story. It's about respecting your feelings and story. It's about honoring your story and feelings.

It's imperative for me to be neutral while you are relating your story in order for me to respect and honor who you are. Because you are not me. I am not you. Neither of us can know the other's experience.

Honoring and respecting each other is the essence of empathy.

1 comment:

linhsw said...

So true, Larry! Thank you for reminding me to listen and honor. I look forward to reading all your posts!