Such powerful words. I’ve been using them for a lifetime. Turns out, I did not understand the essence of their meaning. And when it comes to building teams and being a good leader, the difference can be substantial.
There are four words that we often use interchangeably: pity, sympathy, empathy and compassion.
When people hurt, we feel for them. That’s a pity. In practical terms, pity is seen as a negative. When we pity ourselves, or have a “pity party,” we’re likely in a place of disempowerment. When others express pity, it can evoke feelings of superiority, condescension or contempt.
When we acknowledge someone’s pain, we are expressing sympathy. We’re letting them know that we are aware of their situation, commiserating their misfortune. When we express sympathy, it helps us connect with people. It’s important as leaders and colleagues to express sympathy at times of loss or pain. People appreciate it.
To connect with someone during a painful time in their life, we express empathy, which is the capacity to imagine being in someone else’s situation. As president, Bill Clinton famously said, “I feel your pain.” It means, “I’ve been there. I know this place. I can feel it.” As leaders or teammates, we connect more deeply when we’re empathetic. It’s a powerful way to build trust and deepen relationships. And when we express that “we know how you feel” idea, it can backfire. No two individuals share the same experience, no matter how similar the situations might seem. My loss of a loved one is different from yours. And letting people know you’ve felt similar pain is always a good thing.
To connect with people’s pain and help them do and feel better, that’s compassion. It’s the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.
As leaders and teammates—at home and at work—we need to avoid pity, but instead express sympathy, feel empathy and collaborate with compassion. Helping people achieve success—and overcoming obstacles—is true leadership. ♦
Stephen Garber is director of Third Level Ltd. Contact him at 561.752.5505 or firstname.lastname@example.org.