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Sympathy vs. Empathy Courtesy of Spilled Starbucks

Many years ago, when my son was about four years old and his sister was two, I had a ritual of stopping at Starbucks before church each Sunday. We would pull through the drive thru, I would order my venti soy chai latte, get my son a horizon vanilla milk, and my daughter chocolate milk then walk through the church doors like I was on clouds. Cute, cooperative children and Starbucks in hand – this was my vision of a mom who had it all together.

One particular Sunday morning, the only part of that vision that we lived out was the Starbucks in my hand. Prior to getting out of the car, my son had accidentally squeezed his milk container, squirting sticky liquid all over his pants. He cried from the car all the way into the church. “Mommy, I am wet. Mommy, I am dirty. Mommy, I am not comfortable. Mommy, can we go home?”

I started off calmly. “No, we can’t go. We are at church now.” When that did not work, I shifted to logic. “Son, you were playing with your milk and you spilled it. You are stuck with wet clothes. They will dry, really they will.” When his crying and pouting continued, I tried again. “I am sorry you are wet, you will be fine it’s…”

And that’s when it happened. My sweet two-year-old daughter knocked my full hot chai tea out of my hand, and it spilled all over my pants and down my leg.

I stopped mid-sentence, mouth wide open. I stared down at the wet, dirty pants sticking to my flesh and had the reaction that any spent mom in my situation would have, I busted out laughing. There I was sitting in church, envisioning being my best self, and the most I could come up with had been a few drops of sympathy for my son.

What he needed wasn’t sympathy or cynicism; he needed empathy.

What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy? Sympathy is when you pity someone. It often sounds like, “Aw, that happened to you? I’m sorry.” Empathy, on the other hand, is when you understand and share the feelings of another person, which to me, sounds more like, “I see you; I know exactly what that is like.”

So, I am laughing heartily aloud in the back of the church where the lights are dim and people are shuffling in and out before the service. My son looked at me, took in the situation, and said, “Oh Mommy, are you ok?”

I looked in his sweet hazel eyes and said, “Yep, buddy. Now Mommy’s pants are wet, too. It feels pretty icky. Want to go to the bathroom with me and we can get cleaned up?”

And that day, I felt abundantly blessed to be the thirsty mom of cute, somewhat cooperative, stain-wearing children. Nearly ten years later, I still think back to that life lesson about sympathy versus empathy brought about thanks to my conspiring children. To practice true empathy, I had to be willing to connect with others and share their feelings.

In action, practicing empathy looks like listening to others, not to smartly point out a silver lining, but instead to genuinely relate to their current state. For example, a colleague might tell you, “I am not loving my job right now. Today at work I had a great idea, but someone spoke over me repeatedly and the project manager would not respond to my email.”

The sympathetic silver-lining response may be, “Man, I am sorry, but at least you have a job.” Whereas the empathetic response would be, “I know how you feel. There have been times when that has happened to me.” If you want to build an even more authentic connection with the person, try adding, “Tell me more.”

Empathy is an incredibly powerful soft skill that can be learned and harnessed through practice. To sharpen those skills, remember:

1. Empathy matters

2. Hone your listening skills

3. Show compassion

4. Be approachable

5. Be relatable

6. Say, “Tell me more”

This leadership lesson brought to you by a lack of empathy and subsequent forced lesson learned by interacting with preschoolers.

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