Empathy vs Sympathy

A few weeks ago I gave a talk about Communication For Geeks at the Minneapolis MinneBar conference. I strongly believe that the majority of software failures are communication failures, and if geeks want to be a part of fun, successful projects, they had damn well better learn how to communicate... because most managers clearly can't.

It was a surprisingly popular talk: I had twice as many attendees as I had handouts...

Anyway, on Friday, I got an interesting call from one of the attendees, Kelly Coleman. He was excited to tell me about a situation where he used one of my tips to better communicate with one of his friends... Kelly took to heart one of the most important lessons geeks need to learn: use empathy before education! I was really happy to hear about it, so I though I'd repeat the lesson here in case others might benefit:

Empathy is not Sympathy!

A lot of people confuse empathy and sympathy... I do it myself a lot. Sympathy is feeling what somebody else feels through you. When you are being sympathetic, you're not really helping much, because you're making the situation about you... In contrast, empathy is feeling what somebody else feels through them. You keep the focus on them, until you're certain they've expressed themselves fully.

To illustrate, the following would be sympathy:

Bob: I just got fired...
Joe: Wow, that sucks... but don't worry, you'll be fine! I got fired a few years back,
     and there's always work available for talented guys like us, right?

Joe genuinely thinks he is being helpful... Joe is not being helpful! Joe isn't listening to Bob at all. Joe is rambling on about his own past, and about his theories of the job market. He's trying to connect with Bob, but he's using sympathy. Sympathy is dangerous, because it leaves Joe open for this:

Bob: What the hell do you know, Joe? That was years ago! You didn't have 
     a house! You didn't have a wife and a kid to support! The job market was completely
     different back then! You have no clue about my problems! Get the hell away from me!
Joe: ...I was only trying to help...

Bob is clearly in a lot of pain. He's afraid of a lot of things, and his good buddy Joe clearly isn't listening. So Bob lashes out, and wisely tells Joe to get the hell away from him. Then Joe gets defensive, and says something even stupider. With luck, they'll be friends again in a few weeks... but you never know.

In contrast, empathy almost always is better... it would look something like this:

Bob: I just got fired...
Joe: Wow, that sucks... you must be feeling pretty scared right now, huh?

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Give Joe a cookie!

See the difference? Joe didn't make it about himself... he kept his focus on Bob. He asked Bob how he was feeling, and after Bob answers, Joe should keep asking. He should let Bob vent about his situation: his wife, his kid, his house, the job market, whatever. Even if Joe knows a guy who might give Bob a job, Joe should shut the hell up until Bob's finished venting. This may only take five minutes, or it might take a whole hour. Either way, its an important part of the process. Bob will not listen to what Joe has to say, unless Bob feels Joe fully understands his situation.

Empathy before education. Always.

How does Joe know when Bob's finished venting? He'll hear something different in Bob's voice: hope. When Bob is open for suggestions, he'll say something like, "what do you think I should do?" or "have you ever been in this situation before?" Only after Joe hears this, is Bob ready to listen to new ideas, new possibilities, and new ways of fixing this problem. Only after Joe hears hope, or a direct request for help, is Bob ready to hear what Joe wants to say. If Joe wants to help Bob, Joe needs patience.

Now... empathy is not easy, and its extraordinarily difficult for engineers.

Most technical people have been brainwashed by years of "education" into believing that there's a "right way" to do everything, and that its our job to fix it. When something is "wrong," we want to dive in and tell everybody how to make it "right" again. Its a trained compulsion. This is why engineers make lousy lovers, but excellent terrorists. In both cases, its a lack of empathy that dooms us to this fantasy world of absolute right and wrong, making it impossible to see things from another perspective.

Sound like anybody you know?

As such, it will be difficult for software engineers to learn empathy... but they needs lots of practice before they can move on to even more advanced forms of communication... which I'll be talking about on a later date ;-)

Should We Always Use Empathy?

That's a tricky question... empathy takes a lot of time, and sometimes you don't have the luxury. However, it is important to understand what empathy is, so when people "fall off the wagon" you won't take it personally...

For example, blogger James McGovern decided to practice empathy which got some props from Billy... however, James' blogging style does not lend itself well to empathy... He's snarky, and enjoys to inciting fights, so he can better understand who has a better position. If everything were puppies and rainbows, I'd probably stop reading his blog. No surprise that James then went back to his old self after about 23 hours...

And lets not forget Broc Samson's mystic journey in Venture Brothers... where in a dream he learns the value of empathy and feels great... but then is confronted by his former special ops trainer:

Broc Samson: What about uhhh, humanity and empathy and all that garbage?
Hunter:      You're a tool, boy, a tool! Built for a single purpose by the United States
             who shut your third god damned eye for a good f$%&ing reason! You can't
             teach a hammer to love nails, son. That dog won't hunt!

Yep... an army of empaths sure would be cool... but in the meantime, we live in a world of conflict... so until everybody understands the power of empathy, its probably best to know multiple ways to deal with conflict. In order, I prefer empathic communication, principled negotiation, then Broc Samson.

In the meantime... practice giving and getting empathy. Its far more powerful than you realize.

Dude, you just summed up

Dude, you just summed up marriage in one easy little post, I am printing this out and hanging it on my fridge.

Wife "hey honey, I had a crappy day at work today"
Me "Ohh really, would you like to talk about it? Just a minute and I will be right back to listen I just need something from the fridge"

this is only part one...

I have about a dozen other lessons along these lines to share... ;-)

You got it!

I am a Sales Manager of heavy equipment and I will be using this in my sales meeting very soon...engineers are not the only ones that blow this one! If you have a sales team at your company, they should read this again and again until they get it!

not exactly...

Empathy refers to one personally and intellectually identifying with someone in their suffering due to same or similar circumstance.

Sympathy is the attempt for one to identify with someone in suffering, but they have not experienced nor can they intellectually identify with their suffering.

You are stating the common

You are stating the common misperception that Bex corrects. Check your facts.

That seems too simple: the issue is of context and awareness

There are essentially two things at play here: the loss of the job and the reaction to the loss of the job due to the extenuating circumstances.

Joe has experienced the first phenomenon but not in the exact context Bill has: wife, kids, house, different market, etc. Bill's initial statement didn't include his concerns about his family, just that he lost his job. Joe _can_ empathize with job loss.

So, arguably, Joe is empathetic in his understanding of job loss but was not aware of how Bill would react to his "positive" advice.

Specifically, Joe's second reply downplays his common experience (job loss) with Bill and is thus more of an expression of sympathy than empathy!

He acts as though he doesn't know what Bill is talking about but that he recognizes that, whatever it is, it is producing anxiety in Bill. Thus, instead of expressing empathy as regards the particular common experience - job loss - he expresses empathy is in a more general common context - as awareness that Bill is experiencing anxiety - which is in effect being sympathetic.

So there's the issue of how particular one wants to be in expressing empathy: that one has experienced a similar phenomenon or just that one has experienced a similar emotional state.

Namely, I'd argue that In the specific context of engineers, it might be best to be sympathetic! Maybe you can't relate to the specifics of the other person's situation but you can relate to emotional distress and discomfort!

No two people are exactly alike and not only have differences in situation but also different reactions to events. So at a certain level it is impossible to "truly" empathize. All one can do is try to assess what the other party is feeling and react accordingly.

Thus this post is arguably as much about tact and being sensitive to the mindset of the other person as it is about empathy.

We all have experienced anxiety and distress even if the sources of said anxiety or distress are not the same. Many people are frustrated with simple tasks that more technically-oriented people find quite simple: the engineer might not be able to empathize per se.

I now work more in programming but when I used to teach (math, etc.) I found that a good approach, as obvious as it is, was simply to be aware of the mindset of the students and in particular when they were suffering because they were frustrated - to try to be aware of their feelings - and how this can arise when they don't understand something in the course....or even if you're going too slowly and boring the daylights out of them! ;-)

Then, being sensitive and sympathetic to their situation - being empathetic to that very general emotional state - a good course of action is to simply just be polite, patient and work with the other party to try to identify if not the exact source of their problem, at least that which might result in the greatest improvement in their situation. Certainly, being snarky, dismissive, uninterested or callous to other peoples' feelings is not the way to work with others or get the best results.

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