What is empathy? Is it sympathy? In Satvatove’s Transformative Communication model we make a distinction between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy can involve pity, or feeling bad for someone. Most of us sometimes appreciate a sort of pity party once in a while- “I feel so bad for you”- and there’s a place for that. But that’s not empathy.

What is empathy? Is it kindness? Certainly when we convey genuine empathy, we’re showing kindness, though kindness is not intrinsically synonymous with empathy.

What is empathy?

Is it agreement? Not inherently. In the process of Transformative Communication empathy can be accompanied with disagreement, as easily as with agreement.

In response to the question “What is empathy,” our focus is on understanding, on seeing the world from the other person’s perspective. To cross the bridge from my world to your world, to see, and more profoundly, to feel and experience, your world, requires that I am secure in myself, in my worldview. Because I’m secure, I am willing to open myself to deep understanding of your feelings, thoughts, and perspectives. This entails readiness to suspend my judgments (which of course is different than pretending I don’t have judgments), so that I get a fresh experience of you and your standpoint. Empathy as a way of being is aligned with approaching life with a spirit of wonder and discovery.

Thus, while sympathy might involve feeling pity or sorrow for someone, such sympathy doesn’t intrinsically demand understanding. Sometimes sympathy can even have a condescending nature. A statement like “I feel terrible for you” doesn’t necessarily communicate that I understand what’s happening for you. In considering what is empathy, we can realize that a statement such as “I understand that you feel humiliated because he ridiculed you in front of the whole team,” expresses concrete understanding of what the other person has said, and the feeling behind it. That, especially when integrated with genuine warmth and caring, demonstrates empathy.

With regard to the above scenario, in communicating empathy I may or may not agree that the person is justified in feeling humiliation, anger, or hurt. Whatever my opinion, I’m suspending it to show that I understand the world of the other. In doing so, my world may open to broader perspectives, and the other person will feel understood, which is a primary human need. On the basis of this understanding, a person will likely feel inspired to share more, and to be open to hear alternate views- as the saying goes, people don’t care what you know, till they know that you care. To cross the bridge from my world into the world of another is a powerful way to show that I care.

We understand of course, in this discussion about what is empathy, that terms such as sympathy, kindness and empathy are used in various ways, each with valid application. In this article we present some distinctions that we’ve found very helpful in creating sacred space in our communication and relationships with others, and with ourselves.

Satvatove Institute assists individuals, communities and organizations worldwide understand what is empathy. For information about Satvatove’s workshops, seminars, coaching and coach training programs, write to seminars@Satvatove.com or coaching@Satvatove.com.

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