As leaders, we are often called to help people get perspective and to see and move through apparent inner and outer limitations. During this process, people will sometimes experience emotional reactions as they face challenges in their personal and professional lives. Our conditioning might tempt us to lose ourselves in their dilemma in an attempt to sympathize with them.

We may find ourselves saying things like: “Oh you poor thing. What happened to you is just terrible! You must feel awful. I wish there was something I could do.”

Do these words sound familiar? Maybe you’ve used them on a friend or relative who suffered a bad break or a heartache. Or perhaps you’ve heard them yourself from a well-meaning friend at a time when you were down.

Words like these are usually expressed by well-meaning people in sympathy to someone they care about. But imagine yourself hearing these words right now. How do they make you feel? Loved, cared for, empowered? Or a helpless victim?

Though sympathy is a socially acceptable gesture, I suggest that you stop using it and accepting it from others. It doesn’t help you or them. Empathy is a far superior form of expression. Let me explain.

Sympathy or Empathy?

So what’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? Sympathy, while highly valued in our culture, can actually be very disempowering. The sympathetic perspective tends to place you above the other, placing you in an "I'm fine and you've got a problem" stance. While this statement may not be uttered, it may be the underlying feeling sentiment. Expressing sympathy this way can actually accentuate a victim state of mind, and is less likely to empower someone to resolve this self-limiting point of view.

On the other hand, coming from an empathetic perspective, you understand what the other is feeling but you don’t necessarily go there with them. Instead, you view them as capable of working through the issue at hand. To be empathetic to someone in pain, you might say something like, “I sense that you’re hurting. What do you need right now?”

This stance is one of understanding and one that places the responsibility for getting the necessary help in the hands of the person who needs it. Don’t rescue! Many people play the victim role so that others can play the rescuer role. Give people the opportunity to find the strength they need and you will both be better off.

Practice Empathy

Practice using empathy the next time you’re in a situation where someone is suffering emotionally. See this person as a functional, healthy, whole human being. Be present with them and listen quietly. Don't lose yourself in an attempt to connect with them. Stay present to yourself to connect with them in the present...the place where no problem exists.

Don’t try to have their feelings for them. Instead, let them feel their feelings, express their concerns, and shed their tears. Trust that what they need to take their next step is available somewhere close at hand if they are open to seeing it and receiving it.

Put yourself in the other’s shoes, but don’t try to fix anything for them. Just be with them with your heart open and with an inner and outer certainty that their current perception is only one perception of what's real and that they will find strength in your silent witness to their temporary fantasy of limitation.

Author's Bio: 

Steve Davis, M.A., M.S., is a Leader’s Coach, Infoprenuer, and free-lance human, helping facilitators, leaders, educators, trainers, coaches and consultants present themselves confidently, access their creativity, empower their under-performing teams, and build their business online and offline. Receive free ecourse on Facilitative Leadership and weekly ezine for facilitators and group leaders at