According to noted author Brene Brown, empathy is feeling WITH someone. This frequently gets confused with sympathy, which is feeling FOR someone.
Below is a parable to help explain.
Imagine someone is trapped in a deep well and they shout out from the bottom, “It’s dark and scary down here. I’m overwhelmed.”
A SYMPATHETIC person looks over the edge of the hole and says, “OH, its bad, that looks terrible. So sorry.” And then they keep walking.
An EMPATHETIC person peers over the edge and says, “I see you,” then climbs down with the confidence that they both can get back out. “I know what it is like down here and you are not alone.” (Of course you do not climb down without your way out. That would be enmeshment.)
The difference is clear. The word “with” is quite powerful. There is a connection that is made with it. When you are “with” someone, you are connected to them. That connection is a foundational component to empathy.
Understanding another, your spouse, a friend, or a co-worker requires that you use your brain to think about what is going on. That frequently requires you to be a bit curious about them and their circumstances. Curiosity leads to conversation and questions. Once this happens, our ears kick in and we should focus on LISTENING. This one can be very hard. I know it is hard for me at times. However, when I do it, it ALWAYS makes a difference. I may have to slow down, but it is an investment well worth it.
The last component of understanding and empathy, is your heart. This one can be tough because frequently it can get confused by self needs and protection that override the ability to feel for others which then impedes your ability to be “with” them.
Below is a fun example that highlights some of what I am discussuing here. Take a look at the picture and then read the text.
The man doesn’t know that there is a snake underneath.
The woman doesn’t know that there is a stone crushing the man. She thinks: “I am going to fall! and I can’t climb because the snake is going to bite me! Why can’t he use a little more strengh and pull me up!”
The man thinks: “I am in so much pain! Yet I’m still pulling you as much as I can! Why don’t you try and climb a little harder?!”
The moral is: You can’t see the pressure the other person is under, and the other person can’t see pain that you’re in.
Understanding and empathy require communication. By using our brains in this scenario, we would be clear about where we are and what is going on by communicating. The man and the woman can use their ears to hear when the other describes what they are feeling. (And if the snake is rattling or hissing, the ears would help with that too!) Finally, when they have used their brains and ears, then their hearts would kick in and they would stop blaming each other and they would begin to identify the real problem(s). By so doing, they would then be better equip to solve the problems since they now have them better identified.
I know this is a basic example and I would challenge all of us to see how the simple practice of using our brains, ears and hearts can impact our lives and the lives of others. When we do, we gain better understanding about others, and more importantly, about ourselves as well.
I would love it if you would share other examples of this. It possible could help me or someone else reading.
If this cursory look at empathy interests you, then I recommend you check out DARE TO LEAD and THE GIFTS OF IMPERFECTION by Brene Brown.