‘Giving it a go’ rather than ‘getting it right’: Empathy and Sympathy

Empathy and Sympathy

I thought I had empathy figured out. I had learnt that sympathy was not as good and you should avoid it. I had a vague idea that empathy meant you were going the extra mile and maybe you were more skilled in terms of emotional intelligence. Apart from that, I wasn’t really able to articulate the difference between the two concepts. Recently I was preparing to help facilitate two days of workshops which involved this topic, which I am exploring in this blog.

The framework we were focusing on introducing was Nonviolent Communication (NVC), introduced by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. People generally smile or laugh when I say the name of the approach, I think because they are wondering what kind of violent communication I usually get up to. However, NVC regards violence in a different way than things like shouting, getting in someone’s face or punching someone, which I guess is what people are imagining.

The idea behind NVC is that all behaviours are driven by humans trying to meet their needs – if we can be more aware of our needs and other people’s needs, it can lead to more interpersonal harmony. People can share their needs and, using empathy, respond to them and together find out strategies which can meet them. Needs include connection, peace, play and autonomy. Communicating non violently prioritises meeting everyone’s needs. It has been applied in schools, organisations, mediation and conflict zones.

An argument for empathy

Empathy is important in the practice of NVC. Empathy for yourself and for others. Imagine someone raises their voice to tell you that they are stressed out by you because you didn’t finish a piece of work yet. If you can use empathy to try and understand the need behind what they are saying (maybe their need for reliability) or give yourself some empathy for the needs not being met when they raise their voice (maybe your need for respect), it might be a more productive conversation than just shouting back defensively. Marshall described “With empathy, I’m fully with them, and not full of them – that’s sympathy.” 

There are different ways in which sympathy can show up. Imagine someone is telling you about an argument they had with their partner. My pattern would be to jump in and give advice (“Why don’t you plan some time to talk through this issue?”) or try to educate the person about the situation (“Research has found arguments are a healthy part of a relationship”). Or, I might console them (“Don’t worry, I am sure things will get better”). I often want to ask for more details about what happened in order to ‘get the facts straight’ (“So, when was this argument? Who started it?”) I usually think of a situation where I have experienced something similar and want to share it with them (“Ah yeah this reminds me of a similar argument I had the other day..”). The idea is that all of these responses can get in the way of empathy if we are thinking of it as being fully present with another person. Maybe you can think of a recent conversation where you shared something with someone and you left feeling a bit dissatisfied? It could be that they responded in one of the above ways and you didn’t really feel ‘heard’.

Something I want to mention here is that I am not advocating sympathy = bad and empathy = good. It is easy to learn about a new concept and think that it is The Thing That Will Solve Everything and then try and apply it to all situations. For example, sympathy might sometimes be useful in a situation and help you connect with someone going through something. Giving someone some advice might be exactly what they would like. They might like to hear about how you have experienced something similar. They might want to get clearer on the details of what they went through. However, NVC suggests that you have an opportunity to reach another level of connection through empathy.

Anxiety, improvisation and NVC

Recently, I realised how a lot of my anxiety was based around a fear of the unknown, particularly in social situations. I think everyone experiences this at some point. For example, I don’t really like answering the phone if I don’t know who is calling. I am more likely to feel nervous before a meeting with someone I haven’t met before or don’t know very well. Through experimenting with improvisation, I am moving towards seeing all of these interactions as small adventures. I like the word adventure because it is not necessarily an enjoyable thing, but you usually learn something. It helps me get into the mindset of being a bit tough and scrappy. Learning about NVC has also helped me more often see interactions with people as gifts, something to be curious and maybe even excited about, through the possibility of together meeting your needs. What someone might say can be a really precious opportunity rather than something to fear (though of course, people can say scary things!) 

Getting it right vs Giving it a go

So, what I am coming around to, is that in those interactions with people, particularly when someone is sharing something more vulnerably, I can end up feeling a pressure towards  ‘getting empathy right’ or ‘saying the right thing’. I will give an example that happened in the recent NVC workshop which had quite an impact on me. On the second day, I was having a 1:1 conversation with one of the workshop participants and he told me that he really struggles with sharing his feelings and he was frustrated about it. He said that it was a pattern in their organisation, where people avoided talking about their feelings and remained much more transactional. I felt pleased he was opening up to me as it met some of my needs:

  • Connection – he was sharing something vulnerable with me. Few men have shared with me like this.
  • Trust – I felt trusted by him, someone I had only met the previous day, to open up
  • Learning – I was getting the opportunity to learn about the organisation he works for and his experience of that

So, whilst I was touched that he was sharing this with me, I found myself thinking a lot about how to ‘get this situation right’. I wanted to meet his needs that he must have been pursuing in sharing this information. I really didn’t want to scare him off from sharing like this in the future. The problem was, by thinking so much about this, I wasn’t really present with him. There were a number of ways I could respond and they would probably all present opportunities afterwards to make another response, but I was so focused on my own fears around doing the ‘right thing’. I managed to ask some more questions and reflect some things back to him that he had been saying, but it felt fairly unnatural and I am not sure I could call myself ‘fully present’. 

Something we have been talking about at RISE, has been this idea of ‘good enough’. This is not a general state that we achieve, but rather something that is relevant to every situation we find ourselves in. Another useful Marshall phrase is the objective of “getting progressively less stupid” – I guess that is a good summary of what I am trying to achieve here. Rather than trying to ‘get this right’ I am giving it a go. Improvisation classes are certainly helping me practice this, especially as mistakes are often the best bits! I will continue to experiment with a mix of empathy and sympathy and hopefully find this awareness useful in building connection with people.

If you are interested in NVC or improvisation and would like to have a chat about them, please get in contact here. I am also keen to keep learning about NVC so please reach out if you think I am missing an important perspective!

Many thanks to my sister, Sara and my dad, Pete, for reading and asking me thought-provoking questions.