Empathy has been a hot topic. Wherever you go in the learning space—from preschool to the boardroom—teachers and leaders are stressing the importance of empathy. The growing number of millennials in the workforce have changed the emotional make up of our corporate world. They are, rightfully, pushing for greater authenticity, meaning, and transparency from the companies they work with. This renewed focus on empathy, however, falls short of its optimistic intentions.
Empathy is understanding and sharing the feelings of another person from the other person’s perspective. We think that is noble and wonderful…but problematic. Our attempts to use empathy in the workplace are often self-serving. What we settle for is single-level empathy—“if I was you, I would feel this way.” In this mindset, I am acting as if I were you as me, not as if I were you as you. Furthermore, my experience as me is different from your experience as you. This can sometimes reinforce the very issues we are trying to deal with, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion. We need to take a new approach and revisit an old friend—sympathy.
Sympathy gets a bad rap. People think it is demeaning or patronizing, but that is not the case—they are mistaking it for pity. Sympathy is the ability to recognize and acknowledge the feelings of others. It can be as simple as a listening ear, a short follow up, or a few words of support. We find that the people we work with seek help, but most often they want to be heard.
Sometimes people just want you to see and respect their pain. They do not want to hear about a time when it happened to you or someone you know. They do not want to hear how you would feel if you were them. Far too often, however, we take their story and make it about us. This hollow effort diminishes a relationship more often than bolstering it.
At JMReid Group, we believe that attempts at empathy often fail because it is difficult to truly take another’s perspective and ultimately may not be what the other party really seeks. This month, focus on respecting those around you by leaving empathy behind and validate someone by listening to them and where appropriate sympathizing with their situation. Our world would be better off if we could recognize and acknowledge the challenges of others not because we can truly empathize but rather because we share in their humanity.