Day Two - What Empathy is Not

Week 7

This is the audio recording of the second reading of week seven of Start, entitled What Empathy is Not.

“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
― Daniel H. Pink

To grow in our understanding and practice of empathy, we need to be clear about what empathy is not.

Empathy is not sympathy.

There are many cases in which it is good and right to express sympathy. Sympathy is a feeling of care or concern for another person, often accompanied by a wish to see them better off or happier. Jesus shows sympathy in many of the miracle stories we find in the gospels. Before feeding the 5000 in Matthew 14, we read that Jesus “saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses. Sympathy, therefore, is not wrong.

Here is the crucial difference between sympathy and empathy: Sympathy is standing outside the situation. Empathy is stepping into the situation. When we express sympathy, we position ourselves above or apart from the other, whereas empathy places us alongside another. When we empathize, we join someone in their feelings, even if we cannot relate to their specific experience. When we can join someone in their emotions and validate those feelings, it fuels connection. While valuable in its way, sympathy is limited in its ability to help us connect deeply with others.

Empathy is not approval or agreement.

It is possible to empathize with a person’s pain, even if you disagree with their perspective. When we empathize, we’re not necessarily validating a person’s actions or beliefs. We are validating their emotions. For example, someone could share a political perspective you disagree with and then say they fear what will happen if elected officials do not take their perspective. You can say, “It sounds like you’re pretty upset about this,” or, “I understand why you’re afraid.” Note that in neither of those responses are you saying that you agree. You are simply saying you understand.

This concept can be challenging to digest in our polarized and contentious world, but most people’s feelings and reactions make sense once you truly understand where they are coming from. Furthermore, empathy and validation can be beneficial tools to help de-escalate difficult conversations. When someone is upset or angry, empathy and validation are your best chance at getting them to be receptive to feedback.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He spent time with struggling people whose actions were clearly not aligned with His teaching. Yet, it was through creating a safe space for listening and interaction that He facilitated significant transformation. For example, in Luke 19, the corrupt tax collector Zacchaeus is transformed after spending time with Jesus in his home. Luke doesn’t tell us what they talked about. He just tells us that the interaction changed Zacchaeus’ life.

Empathy is not codependency.

We don’t practice empathy out of our desire to be needed. Instead, we offer empathy out of love and concern for another. If we demonstrate empathy because we find our worth or value in meeting the needs of others, we’ve likely crossed the line into codependency.

Empathy is not only for negative emotions.

We can deepen our connection with others by empathizing with positive emotions. A 2004 study showed that romantic relationships were higher in commitment, satisfaction, trust, and intimacy when partners actively validated each other’s accomplishments. Unsurprisingly, negative responses to a partner’s bid for validation or connection correlated with negative relational outcomes.  What is surprising is “passive constructive” responses (e.g., “Oh cool. Guess what I did today?!”) had similar relationship outcomes as destructive or negative responses. When we fail to offer validation (“I’m so excited for you!  Tell me more.”), we risk hurting those closest to us.

Opportunities to deepen connection through positive validation frequently present themselves in our non-romantic relationships. Letting these opportunities pass is easy because they rarely seem urgent. For most of us, our impulse to help a struggling friend or loved one is strong, but our impulse to look for opportunities to notice and appreciate the accomplishments of others is less intense. And yet, if we can make a point to validate positive emotions and experiences, we will unlock a new depth of connection in our relationships.

My Response

  • What stood out to you most from this reading? Was anything surprising or confusing?
  • Take a few minutes to skim one of the gospels. Where do you see Jesus practicing empathy?
  • How good are you at validating the positive emotions and experiences of others? Where do you have opportunities for this?
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