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What’s the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy?

By |April 05, 2024

People always confuse sympathy with empathy, but they are vastly different concepts.

At a high level, sympathy is about using common ground and telling your counterpart you know what they’re going through. 

Usually, when people use sympathy, they say something like, Oh yeah, I was feeling the same way. A great example comes from my nephew’s wedding. I always like to watch people, and these two women who hadn’t seen each other in a while started chatting. After exchanging pleasantries, one woman asked the other how she had been.

Oh, gosh, she said. I lost a couple of family members during COVID. They were in the hospital and had to be put on a ventilator, and it was very hard for the family.

Instead of expressing empathy, the counterpart started talking about how she lost four of her own family members during the pandemic. It turned into a competition of sorts.

Rather than showing that she cared about the other woman’s feelings and emotions in the moment, she made the conversation about herself, thinking she was being understanding by sharing a similar experience. 

Empathy Is Understanding Someone’s Perspective

The Black Swan Group teaches about the power of Tactical Empathy®—being able to recognize someone else’s perspective and verbalizing that recognition . 

When you reach that point, your counterpart realizes you get it. You don’t have to tell them you understand their position because you’ve demonstrated that you understand.  By the time you’ve said your piece, your counterpart will feel like they’ve conveyed what they wanted —it just came out of your mouth before they had a chance to say it.

Empathy is not about liking someone or even agreeing with them. It’s about taking what they said (or might not have said) and giving it back to them, usually in your own words. When done correctly, the other side will get a good feeling about you and start to warm up. The floodgates of truth-talk begin to open.

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How to Demonstrate Empathy

Think back to the conversation between the two women at the wedding. Rather than turning the conversation into a competition, the woman could have said something like: It seems like you genuinely care about the health and well-being of your family. 

Even if you’ve never found yourself in a similar situation, you can still demonstrate empathy: It sounds like that was a difficult time for you.

Demonstrating empathy is easiest when you use Black Swan skills—such as Summaries™, Paraphrasing, Labels™, and Mirrors™.  With these skills, you are repackaging what the other side gives you and giving it right back.  This repackaging is a clear demonstration that you’re listening. If you use a Summary and leave a key detail out, don’t sweat it; the urge to correct is irresistible, and the other side will tell you what you’re missing.

Does Sympathy Matter?

Although sympathy certainly has a place in all our lives—we should be sympathetic to our friends and family members because we genuinely care about them— it usually has no place in the business world. 

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. The other day, I talked to a long-term client and found out he shut down an office and was thinking about shutting down another one. People’s livelihoods were at stake, so that’s never an easy decision. At that moment, I felt genuine sympathy for him—but only because I’ve known him for a long time.

In the majority of your business interactions, though, ditch sympathy and focus on empathy alone. By understanding your counterpart’s perspective and being able to verbalize it, you set the stage for a productive conversation—one that helps you achieve the outcomes you’re shooting for.

To learn more about how you can use empathy to build stronger relationships and win more business, read this.

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