Thinking Out Loud

Empathy and Sympathy

Professional opera singers have voice coaches and professional baseball players have batting coaches. What they tend to emphasize are the fundamentals, and so it is with practicing good communication.

I spend a good deal of time in the office bringing couples back to the fundamentals. Effective communication is not a fancy process. It requires discipline with some fundamental principles. It starts with establishing a connection. Too often, we assume a connection is established because we already have a relationship with the other person. Although we have a connected relationship, there is still a need to establish a connection to the immediate situation.

What does that mean?

It means that in a personal relationship, when you are being told something that has an emotional charge (even a small emotional charge), it is important to acknowledge the emotional reality of the speaker. Sometimes we call that giving emotional validation. That’s always step one. Validation requires that you show sincere empathy and/or sympathy. To be sympathetic means to demonstrate compassion for another’s trouble. To be empathetic means to project one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him or her better.

Sympathetic statement: “Clearly this is very upsetting to you. It must have been a really rough day.”

Empathetic statement: “I know how distressing it can be to have a friend say something like that, especially someone you’re that close to.”

To be sympathetic or empathetic does not require any problem solving or other demonstration of wisdom. It also does not require agreement with what your friend said or did. Granted it is harder to demonstrate empathy or sympathy if you believe your friend erred in some way. Still you will not be able to satisfactorily discuss the situation in any depth without validation for the suffering of the other person. When there is sincere validation, trust is enhanced.

I’ve written about this topic because it comes up so frequently in different forms. And like the voice coach and the batting coach say, “It’s always about the fundamentals.”

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