You may have heard the phrase, “Walk a mile in another man’s boots.” It’s hard to do — and it has the power to change everything.
We often confuse empathy with its first cousin, sympathy. These two concepts are both essential for life and leadership, but they are not the same thing. Sympathy is the ability to feel something similar to what someone else is feeling. For example, you might tell me a sad story and I would recognize the feeling as sad. I might connect your sad feeling with a sad feeling I had once. I might even say, “Yeah, man, I know how you feel.” Empathy, on the other hand, is actually feeling what another person feels, as they are feeling it, almost like you are living in their skin. With empathy, you not only recognizing the feeling; you actually feel with the other person in real time, through their experience.
Please watch this short (18 minute) talk by Daryl Davis. As you listen, I invite you to think about sympathy and empathy. Sympathy would be to listen to this talk and say: “Yes, I’ve felt something that before.” Empathy, on the other hand would be to listen to this talk and actually feel what Mr. Davis is feeling as he speaks. You may notice the subtle difference between sympathy and empathy as you put on this man’s boots. Then, after the talk, please come right back for today’s takeaway.
Not very glamorous, is it?
Here is the difference. When you’re being sympathetic, you might actually feel kind of cool that you get it — and even let the other person know that you get it, for extra points. With empathy, though, you just feel what the other person feels. Sometimes you’ll feel great and share in the other person’s joy. Other times, though, you might be left with the same hollow feeling the person you’re with is feeling. It’s hard work, and it isn’t very glamorous. But as you may have noticed from the talk, walking in the boots of another human being can change the world. When we make the effort to deeply understand another person, the world shifts on its axis a little.
For example: look at the picture of the soldier during WWI at the top of this post. Empathy is not only being able to feel what it’s like to get muddy and walk in boots that are a size too small. It’s feeling the pinch in this particuar soldier’s boots and realizing how much he loved the dead horse next to him in the ditch.
If you want to change the world, or even just your small corner of it, do the hard work of empathy.
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I can help you become more empathetic.