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Empathy vs Sympathy: Why Some People Are More Likeable Than Others

Empathy vs Sympathy: Why Some People Are More Likeable Than Others

Several years ago I went through a gut-wrenching break-up. It was traumatic, painful and devastating. The one bright spot amidst the tears and heartache was the understanding, devotion and genuine care displayed by my family and friends as I went through the healing process. It meant the world to me.

Several months later one of my family members fell ill. Once again I turned to my support system. This time, however, their response was a bit different. It wasn’t that they didn’t care per se, they expressed their feelings a bit differently. I sensed that they couldn’t quite feel where I was coming from. They seem to be more understanding and emotionally supportive during my break up. Their lukewarm and slightly distant responses left me feeling angry, confused and hurt.

This experience taught me the difference between empathy and sympathy.

When one doesn’t have similar experience, very likely he has sympathy rather than empathy

Once I was able to distance myself from the situations and view them a bit more objectively I realized a few important factors which helped explain the differences in the responses I received.

The first thing I learned is that when people have shared or similar experiences, it resonates with them more. During my break up I heard things like, “girl, I know how you feel,” or “chile it ain’t going to be easy, take as much time as you need to get over this,” and “call me anytime you need to talk–day or night–and I’ll be there to listen.” These responses came from a place of knowing how I felt in the moment. These responses were sprinkled with kindness, concern and most important, empathy.

The second important thing I learned is that when it comes to experiences that are foreign to others, people tend to disassociate their feelings and lean towards providing advice. This type of response–while it can appear uncaring, cold and a bit callous, truly is birth out of a place of sincere compassion and sympathy.

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And there in lies the difference between empathizing and sympathizing. Empathy is the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. It is the ability to stand in his or her shoes and endure the gut punch.

Sympathy, on the other hand, allows another person to see the situation through the lens of a spectator–similar to watching a movie. It is a place of distance and inexperience. It allows an individual to see the gut punch but not feel it. It leaves the spectator saying, “Man, that must have hurt. If I were them I would have…”

When a person is in pain, emotional support always trumps practical advice

The worse thing you can do during a time of turmoil is providing advice. Sure you mean well, but giving unsolicited advice is never a good idea. Nine times out of ten, when a person is in despair they want to feel heard and understood. As hard as it can be sometimes–simply listening to a person can be the most helpful and profoundly comforting thing you can do. When a person is in pain, emotional support always trumps practical advice.

Let’s say your good friend loses their job and you’ve never experienced job loss or struggled with unemployment. Saying things like “at least you got your health,” or ” you’ve got money saved, you’ll be alright…” won’t help. They are accurate and your friend will bounce back, however, the true struggle may have nothing at all to do with money. He or she could be feeling betrayed, devalued, unappreciated and feel a loss of identity. Those responses don’t address how the person is feeling.

Instead, listen first. Try to understand how they are feeling. Try to visualize it in your mind’s eye–not how you would feel in the situation but try to imagine how they said they feel. Then and only then should you speak. And when you do, say things that address their concerns such as, “you put in so much time and energy into that job, I understand why you feel betrayed, ” or “you’re right, they should have at least given you a warning that the company was downsizing…”

If all else fails, just listening, wiping away tears and letting them know that you are here – no matter what they need…

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Here are four ways to move from sympathizing to empathizing:

Find a way to relate to what they are experiencing

Try to establish some sort of common ground in your mind. In the example of a friend who’ve experienced job loss, try relating to their feelings of rejection. We’ve all experienced rejection in some form or another. Maybe you had a bad break up with your Ex. The situations are very different but the feelings are parallel. Draw on that experience to help you empathize with what they are feeling.

Practice finding commonalities with everyone you meet

Finding a way to relate to those around you not only makes you more empathetic it makes you more relatable. When you meet a new person, make it a practice to find at least three things you have in common with them.

Also, when people are sharing their experiences with you, work to engage your imagination and visualize what they are saying. Try injecting yourself into the situation and feeling what they felt. Doing this helps train your brain to move from a state of ego-centrism to being “other’s” focused.

The Journal of Neuroscience[1] published a study in which researchers found that the tendency to be egocentric is natural for human beings. However, researchers also found that a part of your brain recognizes the lack of empathy and corrects itself. According to the study:

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“This specific part of your brain is called the the right supramarginal gyrus. When this brain region doesn’t function properly—or when we have to make particularly quick decisions— researchers found one’s ability for empathy is dramatically reduced. This area of the brain helps us to distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion.”

Respond to feelings not words

When a wound is fresh and a person is angry and hurt they are also confused. This is why listening to understand is so paramount to producing an empathetic response. You have to listen with your ears, your eyes and most importantly your heart. You have to hear the subtext and what is not being said.

Parents, teachers, caregivers and anyone who works with children understand this concept. Kids–especially when they are very little–don’t have the vocabulary to adequately express themselves. Adults have to assess the situation, interpret body language and facial expressions and in some way relate to what the child has experienced. The adult then responds to what the child is feeling in lieu of what they said.

Listen, Listen LISTEN

The key to comforting someone who is hurting is listening. You could have experienced the EXACT thing they are going through but you and your friend are unique individuals and see things differently. You may think you know how they feel because of how you feel but you can never be sure until they tell you.

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You have to learn to fight the urge to jump in and say something. Even when the situation gets awkward and you feel something should be said. Fight the urge. Turn off your inner dialogue. Stop constructing your response. Listen to them.

They will tell you–through their words, tears and actions–exactly what they need. And if you are unsure what to do or say, asking the simple question, “what can I do to help” or what do you need from me,” is better than assuming and doing the wrong thing.

Empathy requires more than merely putting yourself into someone else’s position. It is the ability to imagine yourself as him in the exact situation he or she is in. You cannot empathize with an abstract. The experience must become concrete.

When done correctly, empathy leads to compassion which is suffering with someone in lieu of merely pitying them. True empathy says I share your emotions. Compassion, which is built from empathy, is the truest form of comfort we as humans can provide.

Reference

[1] Psychology Today: The Neuroscience of Empathy

More by this author

Anna Chui

Anna is a communication expert and a life enthusiast. She's the editor of Lifehack and loves to write about love, life, and passion.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2019

How to Detect a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

How to Detect a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Work in any competitive field long enough, and you’re bound to run into a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a powerful image. A shepherd watches over his flock to protect them from harm. He’d chase away any predator that tried to make its way into the flock. A clever wolf wearing the skin of a sheep as a disguise can sneak by the vigilant shepherd and get into the herd undetected.

The story isn’t just a colorful description–it’s a warning to all of us to beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing. They may seem innocent, but they have ulterior motives. They’ll use different tactics to camouflage their intentions.

The person who is kind to you, but undercuts you when you aren’t around is a wolf in disguise. A wolf in sheep’s clothing might pick your brain for ideas and then pass them off as their own to get a promotion. They’re always looking out for themselves at the expense of everyone around them.

Wearing a Disguise Has Its Advantages

People don’t go out of their way to manipulate others unless they’re getting something out of it. Hiding their intentions gives wolves the chance to manipulate other people to advance their own agenda. They know that what they’re trying to do wouldn’t be popular, or it might cause struggle if they presented themselves honestly.

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    They’ll be able to do what they want with less interference if they put on an act. By the time people figure out their true motives, the wolf has what it wants.

    Signs That Someone Is a Wolf in Disguise

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        1. They live to take power instead of empowering others. A wolf uses people as stepping stones to get the things that they want. They don’t care what happens to anyone else.[1] A wolf at work might make you look bad during a presentation to make themselves look amazing in front of the boss.
        2. Wolves seem sweet on the outside, but they’ll show you their teeth. If wolves revealed their true identity, people wouldn’t associate with them. They develop a friendly or kind persona, but they can’t keep up the act 24/7. Eventually, they’ll reveal their aggressive tendencies. A wealthy person who likes to break the law may make sizable charitable donations to convince people that they are kind and thoughtful. These donations largely keep them out of trouble, but if someone calls them out, they destroy that person’s reputation to stifle the criticism.
        3. They manipulate through emotions to get what they want. Wolves know that they can get ahead by appealing to your emotions. They find out what you want and need, and they give you just enough to keep you quiet and compliant. Imagine that your boss is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and you want to ask for a vacation. She might try to play on your guilt and feelings of insecurity to get you to skip vacation or take fewer days off.
        4. A wolf will charm you first. Wolves are experts at manipulating the people around them. They appear interested in whatever you’re doing, and you’ll get the impression that they care. After they get you where they want you, they do just enough to keep you on the hook. This is the coworker who may start out being your friend, but they end up dumping responsibility onto you. When they see that you are growing frustrated, they’ll surprise you with something to charm you some more. Then, they’ll continue to do whatever they want.
        5. Their stories are full of holes.  Calling a wolf out is the surest way to make them squirm. When this person tries to come up with a story, it won’t make much sense because they are improvising.[2] The classic example of this is the significant other that you suspect has cheated on you. When you ask them why they came home so late, they’ll either become upset with you, or they’ll make up a weak explanation.

        How to Spot a Wolf

          Know What’s Real So You Can Spot the Phony

          Do some homework so that you have as much of the story as possible before you work with them. Research how they respond in certain situations, or give them hypothetical problems to see how they respond.

          A job applicant might tell you that she’s always positive and thinks of herself as a team-player. That’s what every employer wants to hear. During the interview you ask applicants to work in groups to solve a problem to see how they handle the situation. The applicant “positive team-player” is bossy and negative. You’ve spotted the wolf.

          A wolf will tell you something that ultimately benefits them. Gather evidence that proves or disproves their position, and see what happens. Chances are, when you choose the side that supports their agenda, they’ll act like your best friend. If you disagree, they’ll become aggressive.

          Spotting a potential wolf–especially if you are one of the sheep–can present you with some challenges. If your gut tells you that a wolf is lurking among all the other sheep, pay attention, and make sure you take the next step.

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          Ask Questions, the More the Better

          There’s nothing wrong with asking questions to uncover the truth. The safety of everyone in your group is at risk. Since wolves often make up stories, you may be able to call them out when their tales lack details.

          When they state an opinion, ask “Why do you think that?” or “How do you know it’s like that?” They’ll have trouble coming up with enough information to pull off the lie.

          Since wolves are always pretending to be something they aren’t, they don’t usually have a clearly thought-out reason for what they say. In a debate, they won’t understand the root of an issue.

          They may also tell you what they think you want to hear, but when pressed for more information, they won’t have anything to add. Their knowledge is superficial. No matter how much you try to encourage discussion, they will not be able to carry on a conversation about the subject.

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          Wolves Are Everywhere

          As much as we want to believe that everyone has the best intentions, it isn’t always the case. Some people only do things to benefit themselves, and they don’t care who they hurt in the process.

          Wolves in sheep’s clothing can be found in almost every setting. You can’t get rid of them, but if you can spot them, you can avoid falling into their traps.

          Reference

          [1] Association of Biblical Counselors: Three Ways to Spot a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
          [2] Power of Positivity: Beware of a wolf in sheep’s clothing

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