Although empathy and sympathy might seem similar, there are important differences that can help us develop better relationships with our social networks and loved ones.
According to Dr. Brene Brown, Ph.D., a professor in social work at the University of Houston, empathy drives connection. It helps us understand the feelings and perspectives of other people, stay away from judgment and approach conversations from a place of ‘me too’. On the other hand, sympathy drives disconnection and forces us to put a ‘silver lining’ around things with a ‘poor you’ approach.
Brown admits that not only is empathy a challenge, it’s also a choice. ‘It's a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling,’ she said in a recent speech that has been turned into a beautifully animated video.
The key to empathy is to use language that shows you are thinking and feeling from that other person’s perspective. ‘Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with ‘at least’,’ Brown says. This type of response tries to disregard the problem and may make the other person feel like they’re not being heard.
It’s not easy, but when someone shares something difficult and painful with us, Brown suggests we try to connect with a response that says: ‘I know what it’s like, and you’re not alone.’
Here are some other ways to practice empathy.
According to a study by Psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York, reading literary fiction may help us imagine and understand other people's emotions, which is important for developing social relationships.
Empathy expert Roman Krznaric, Ph.D, suggests that cultivating curiosity helps us understand people outside our usual social circle, who may have views that are very different from our own. He recommends setting a challenge of having a conversation with one stranger a week, to try and understand and empathise with their world.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that positive emotions such as kindness and compassion may be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport. Brain scans revealed that practicing compassion meditation (concentrating on feelings of love, kindness and compassion towards others) affected regions of the brain that helped participants become more empathetic.
To help your children learn empathy skills, tell stories that help kids see the world from the perspective of others and show that you can respond with empathy around the home.