There used to be a common trend in my dating relationships. Unexpected disconnection during conversations.
One moment my sweetheart and I would be chatting about our days, and the next there were short answers to questions, awkward silences, and a disinterest in talking about anything at all.
It would happen if she was telling me about a fight with a friend, uncertainty about the future, or pretty much telling me about anything at all.
Then I began to notice another trend. It only started happening after I would talk. I would give advice, input, and what I thought was best. I thought I was doing good. I thought I was helping. My actions, however, would result in distance.
To my surprise, I started to realized this wasn’t just happening in my dating relationships. This was running rampant in ALL my relationships.
I had a mentality that was killing the chances of having deeper personal connections and genuinely comforting those I cared about.
What Went Wrong?
When all the other person wanted to do was vent, get encouragement, get affirmation, or express feelings in a multitude of ways, I had to go and open up my big, should-not-have-said-anything, not-always-right mouth.
I had a sympathy mentality.
I would often try to sympathize during conversations, arguments, and other times I should have been listening. Sympathizing was my downfall.
I should have been practicing empathy.
Let’s look at the differences between the two.
What is Sympathy?
Sympathy is when we draw on our own feelings, often resulting in thinking we understand exactly how the other person feels.
Sympathy is inward focused. Sympathy can feel like a resolution because we feel better about a situation. We feel good because we gave our advice or helped the other person suppress and bottle up their negative emotions.
If the other person appears to be doing well at the end of our conversation, problem solved, right? Wrong!
What is Empathy?
Empathy is what I thought I had.
Empathy is outward focused. Empathy is putting our focus on understanding the other person’s feelings in that moment.
This means completely listening to the other person without trying to think about a response. After truly listening, it then means responding by affirming their feelings. Make them know that they are not alone.
Empathy can be uncomfortable because there isn’t always a resolution.
To help better understand the differences, here’s an excellent video with empathy expert Dr. Brené Brown that helps articulate the differences.
We have a tendency to think about our response when someone else is talking, rather than truly listening and relating with how they feel in that moment.
As they express themselves, we think about the advice we can give or how we judge their situation. We formulate a response, and we pretend like we are instant experts on their exact situation.
Usually this happens before they even ask for any of it, and they may not have even wanted it in the first place.
Maybe all they wanted was to express themselves? Express their anger, fear, happiness, insecurity, curiosity, anticipation, or any of the thousands of emotions we feel as human beings.
What if they’re wrong?
When I’ve been in an argument, listened to someone vent, or heard someone process through a difficult situation, I’ve found myself evaluating the other person on whether their thinking is right or wrong.
If I think they are wrong, I want to offer advice, or share my own experiences.
It doesn’t matter if their thoughts are right or wrong, people don’t want their feelings overshadowed or dismissed. They want their feelings validated. Not for being right, but for being real.
Even if the reason someone is feeling something is false, their feelings about that situation are very real.
If you want to share your thoughts with someone, you don’t have to do so at the exact time they are being vulnerable with you.
When someone is being vulnerable, first and foremost comfort them. If you have advice you would like to share, give it some time before you share it. It shows that you care about them and what they are going through.
Then, ask for permissions to share your thoughts. Only share your thoughts and advice with them if they want you to, otherwise it will be words fallen upon a deaf ear.
Recognize When Sympathy Goes Astray
To avoid the sympathy mentality wreaking havoc on your relationships, look for the signs that indicate when sympathy is going to hurt the situation. Here are some scenarios to avoid:
- Equating their experiences with your own experiences:
- “That’s just like when I ______.”
- “That exact thing has happened to me.”
- Overshadowing their experience by one upping them:
- “That’s almost as bad as when ______ happened to me.”
- “You’re lucky it’s not as bad as when I ________.”
- Using an invalidating phrase:
- “It could be worse.”
- “At least ______ is going well for you.”
- “Don’t worry about it so much.”
- Giving generic advice:
- “It’ll get better.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- Putting pressure on the person to feel better or to come to a resolution:
- “Are you hung up on that? You need to stop thinking about it and get over it.”
- “You’re worrying about it too much.”
- Ignoring their feelings because it becomes uncomfortable:
- “Why don’t we talk about something else to make you feel better?”
Use Empathy to Make Connection
Instead of having a sympathy mentality, think about what empathy looks like. Try these steps to incorporate the power of empathy into your conversations:
- There’s no need to say anything while they’re sharing. Truly listen to the words of the other person:
- Be attentive and make eye contact so they know you are listening.
- Eliminate distractions such as phones, televisions, etc.
- Affirm their feelings:
- “That must be difficult/stressful/scary/overwhelming.”
- “This must be really hard for you.”
- Offer comforting phrases when you don’t know what to say:
- “I don’t know what to say. Thanks for sharing that with me.”
- “Thank you for being vulnerable with me.”
- “That probably wasn’t easy to tell me.”
- Keep the focus on them:
- “Did you want to tell me more about it?”
- “It seems like you’ve thought about this a lot.”
- Offer help if it’s requested and be vulnerable in your responses:
- “I’m trying to feel what you’re going through, and this is what I would do…”
- “I would love to offer you some advice. Feel free to stop me if you have questions or it becomes uncomfortable.”
- If they don’t request your advice, or they deny your request to give it to them, continue to comfort them.
If you want to make someone feel reassured and have a tendency to speak words of sympathy rather than words of empathy like I do, get back on course by remembering the key differences between the two.
Sympathy is inward focused.
Empathy is outward focused.
Sympathy is affirming to ourselves.
Empathy is affirming to the other person.
Sympathy represses connection.
Empathy encourages connection.
Sympathy is drawing on the feeling of pity for the other person.
Empathy is trying to feel the emotions of the other person.
Sympathy is giving others what we think they need.
Empathy is listening to others to understand what they actually need.
Sympathy seeks to find the easiest conclusion.
Empathy doesn’t always have a conclusion.
Sympathy can be faked.
Empathy must be authentic.
Use Empathy for All Relationships
As people, we thrive on having connections with other people.
Don’t sell yourself short in thinking the idea of incorporating empathy into your relationships only applies to romantic ones. Empathy is a powerful tool to create connections to people in every area of our life.
This can apply to strengthening friendships, family relationships, work relationships, and any other time you interact with another individual.
Not only will that connection be beneficial to the people you’re empathetic with, but you may notice that empathy feels good for you as well.