Sympathy and empathy are the most misused words. Merriam Webster distinguishes them as, “Sympathy is when you share the feelings of another, empathy is when you understand the feelings of another, but do not necessarily share them.” So, in the state of empathy, though one doesn’t experience the feeling, one fully understands another’s feeling. Sympathy entails meaning of being “together”, say as in being in sympathy with someone, who is grieving a loss. Almost all, misuse, sympathy and empathy as synonymous; which they are not. Sympathy is a 16th century word, while empathy is relatively a new word emerging out of the science of psychology. A beggar in rags and tatters, when looked upon, will evoke empathy, but sympathy will reign in when you a send in a condolence card or message, to a survivor facing a bereavement. Sympathy can be signing of a cheque in pity but empathy is to express concern with one’s soul.
A sympathetic environment can be extremely supportive emotionally where colleagues are likely to express freely their inner most thoughts easily and, well too. In sympathy, one has to be careful to not allow oneself to be drowned too in the misery lake of the sufferer. No manager can weep for the whole world and if you live next to the cemetery of corporate sufferings, then you have to choose, for whom you should sympathise? No one is expected to crucify, if one is not the biggest of the pygmies! Sympathy can sometimes be more akin to cruelty. In sympathy, when a manager probes to enquire greater details, he is likely to grow further or create fresh wounds. Sympathy has an in-built tendency to make the recipient weaker, in resolve and determination. Sympathy melts a person.
Many a time, sympathetic comments are most difficult to handle from friends and colleagues, then any misfortune itself. One must as manager of human resources always remember that you can’t limp if someone is hurt. To seek sympathy is to ask cure to reside by the disaster. No comforter’s head ever aches. So it is most easily a thing done, to be sympathetic; empathy requires recognition and effort. Pain of empathy is far more superior to the paralytic impact of sympathy.
Human behaviour responds differently to different situations and many a times differently to a similar situation. Marya Mannes, in “More than Anger”, writes, “Until we know what motivates the hearts and minds of men, we can never understand nothing outside ourselves, nor we will ever reach fulfilment as that greatest miracle of all, the human being.”
As a manager, I have discovered that given the same situation, I have had to sometimes employ being sorry for a person, or exercise sympathy or empathy or compassion, largely due to different response from individuals. Not all humans are alike or carry the same quality of stability of emotions. One has therefore to alter the response depending upon who you are dealing with!
You see someone injured and in pain, and if you feel similarly the pain, that’s empathy. It is that invisible sentiment the pain, that’s empathy. It is that invisible sentiment that is located within a very hard shell. In the context of everyday interpersonal skills deployment on the shop floor between colleagues, I have witnessed that those possessed of large dosage of ‘empathetic powers’ are able to limit and constrict tendencies of anger and verbal assault. Thus, making the environment congenial.
Pity, on the other hand is acceptance, acknowledgement and recognition of someone’s suffering. Caring about someone’s suffering is sympathy. Feeling someone’s suffering is empathy. Providing relief to the sufferer is compassion. And compassion is all about staying with the sufferer, with an active willingness to alleviate the pain or injury, visible or unseen. An infographic was developed by Robert Shelton, a psychologist by training, upon his reading and developing of understanding of these distinguishable words, reflecting different set of emotions (written by Neel Burton MD).
The usage of sympathy and empathy in the context of management is not all about negativity or tragedy. Empathy is visible when you join in the rejoicement of a colleague’s promotion or even the birth of his / her first born or it can be as simple as to return a smile to a smiling face.
A manager must have that ability to distinguish when to use sympathy, empathy or compassion. He that knows this art well, will do well in the development of a happy and productive team. Misuse of these can be equally disastrous. And the usage is also dependent upon who it is being used upon.
Some colleagues may dislike compassion being applied upon them, because it can easily be mistaken for pity. Being pitied throws out in most as negative emotions; because anything that eats into self-esteem will always be disliked and resisted.
While, sympathy and empathy, are ideal cornerstones to subsist together, in any entity; it is of equally critical importance to know, that mere sympathetic organisations do not instil the element of tenacity amongst its members. Actually, sympathy in excessive dosage over time will become part of the corporate culture, which will only weaken and undermine grit and resolve of the workforce. Pity as a currency of corporate values is the most disastrous. Compassion used in good measure, alongside sympathy, would lead to the healthy development of an empathetic organisation.
Sympathy in isolation is a non-productive sentiment. An empathetic organisation would be supportive to those suffering for any reason, without having to gnaw away at an individual’s self-respect. There should be clear distinction between reward (read assistance) and help. An unlikely and unexpected large medical bill of a colleague should be handled only with an empathetic attitude; doing it through medium of sympathy, pity or compassion, will most likely hurt the inner sentiments of self-respect and self-esteem of the individual.
An empathetic organisation will have its workforce trained to know how any verbal assault can perennially damage the positive and productive tendencies of its workforce. Empathy creates emotionally intelligent teams, as they are built upon the edifice of trust, confidence and cohesion.
The writer is a freelance columnist