Empathy is a common practice.  It often looks like this: Have you ever been in a situation where you had a cough, your relationship broke-up, you lost a loved one, or had challenges in your business?

I remembered when that happened to me.

How does that feel?

You are about to share something about you, and I made it about me.


by Suzanne F. Stevens, Conscious-Contribution™ Cultivator, Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), YouMeWe.ca

When you express a situation that may be causing you discomfort, grief, stress, or anger, often someone will instantly try to empathize with you. “I remember when I was sick, …” “I remember when I broke up with the love of my life…” “I remember when I lost my dad…” “I remember when I had this business challenge…” How did your expression for support, become about the other person?

This happens all the time. Many tout to be more empathetic, however, I suggest out with empathy. I know, not a popular perspective, but hear me out.

What is empathy?

Empathy Empathy is defined as: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” often described as ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’

If your client is having a challenge gaining buy-in to a situation, or your friend can’t seem to overcome a hurdle, why do we feel the need to say, “I’ve been there.” It is as if just because we have been there, we can relate.

This just in, two people don’t feel exactly the same emotions when confronting the same or similar situation. Sure, we can distil their experience down to a few emotions such as fear, like, dislike, happy, feel good, love, or belonging, but it is the journey to the final emotion that is so diverse.

The problem with empathy is not whether to use it, it is how it is often used. #MyContributionCounts #YouMeWeMovement Click To Tweet

A client that lost their biggest contract may be devastated, but they may have many other opportunities in the works. Compared to a client who loses their biggest client and they have been barely able to stay afloat for years. The backstory and the future situation is much more complex than the result.

Why is understanding the journey important to you and your connection with your colleagues, clients, collaborators, or people you contribute to?

Well because, if they are sharing it, they want it to be about them, not you.

Perhaps, what would be a more appropriate emotion to express is sympathy.

Empathy out, sympathy in

Sympathy is defined as the feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. You understand how someone feels, rather than sharing a feeling as in the case of empathy. Another difference between empathy and sympathy is one is can appear to be about you (empathy if you missed that), and the other is about them (just to be sure, that’s sympathy).

In both cases, you can take a genuine interest in someone, but when you sympathize, you can keep all the focus on them and be an active listener. Often people just want to talk, and if they don’t – they won’t. But at least you will demonstrate that you are there for them.

Is expressing sympathy enough?

Sometimes being a non-judgmental active listener is all someone needs. A matter of fact, I was coaching Leah Denbok, an extraordinary young lady who takes photos of homeless people. When Leah and her father, Tim, approach homeless individuals they first and foremost enter into a conversation before they ask permission to take their photo. You can learn more about their work here http://www.leahdenbok.com/.

When Leah and Tim speak with homeless people, most welcome their interest and are happy that someone is interested in their story. The journey to their new reality is never the same, and Leah and her father can only be sympathetic, as they have never been in that situation.

Compassion takes empathy and sympathy a step further

Compassion takes empathy and sympathy a step further. Empathy is when you feel the pain of another; sympathy is when you recognize and understand there is the pain, and compassion the desire to alleviate the person’s suffering. Compassion is not passive, but active.

Compassion takes empathy and sympathy a step further. Why become less empathetic and more compassionate. #MyContributionCounts #YouMeWeMovement Click To Tweet

Leah does this by raising funds for the homeless shelter in Barrie, Ontario with the sales of her book.

Compassion, is action. Empathy is sharingThe difference between empathy and compassion is well described in The Book of Joy, “empathy is simply experiencing another’s emotion, compassion is a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person.” The Dalai, Lama describes it best, “if we see a person who is being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling; it is to help to remove the rock.”

Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., is the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and author of the course Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). Jinpa posses that compassion is a four-step process:

  1. Awareness of the suffering.
  2. Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
  3. Wish to see the relief of that suffering.
  4. Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.


Out with empathy

youmewe meBy immediately (which unfortunately is often when it happens), we say, “I understand, I remember when I…” Or “I remember when my client….” All your thoughts go to ‘me.’

And all the person who is vulnerable to sharing is thinking is: “That is great you or someone else you know has the same challenge, problem, situation… but right now all I care about is me and mine. So let me talk.”

I want to challenge you, to stop thinking empathy is the answer, more specifically sharing is the answer. Sometimes a person may want to hear if you know someone in the same situation; here is a clue, someone will ask you: “Do you know anyone else who has gone through this?” Ok, go crazy. Let them know about someone else. Pay attention to the clues when someone is sharing. What do they want from you? Get it wrong, and it just may make them feel worse than before your interaction.

Three steps next time someone shares an unfortunate situation:

  1. Express concern (i.e. ‘I’m sorry to hear of your…) – genuinely.
  2. Thank them for sharing (i.e. I appreciate you sharing this with me…)
  3. Ask if they want to share more about it. (i.e. Would you like to share more about it?).

I wouldn’t recommend asking: “Would you like to discuss it.” Sometimes people need to be heard. If the opportunity presents itself, you can ASK if they would like a perspective or listen to a similar situation. Gain permission, before diving in. (Remember, if it is a conscious-contribution™, it’s not about me!)


Bonus: compassion will reduce burnout

Here is the bonus, when we show compassion over empathy, we can separate our feelings from what someone else’s experience. You won’t be burdened by the weight of their situation, because you will be slightly removed from their situation. “Compassion is a renewable resource. When you can feel empathy but then extend a hand to alleviate someone’s pain, you are less likely to burn out.”

As suggested in the Chopra Center article written by Sara Schairer, founder of Compassion It, points to research that indicates compassion and empathy employ different regions of the brain, and compassion can combat the burden of empathy.


So out with empathy, not only will you make the discussion more focused on the other person, but you will be able to remove yourself from their negative emotions – allowing for your enhanced well-being.

Out with empathy, not only will you make the discussion more focused on the other person, but you will be able to remove yourself from their negative emotions – allowing for your enhanced well-being. #MyContributionCounts… Click To Tweet

Until next time, make your contribution count. #MyContributionCounts #YouMeWeMovement


Consider how to make your contribution count:

  1. When is it appropriate to show empathy, sympathy, or compassion?
  2. How is the best way to demonstrate compassion?
  3. What can you ask to ensure showing empathy is appropriate?


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Suzanne F. Stevens - make your contribution count





Suzanne F Stevens - YouMeWe
Suzanne F Stevens - YouMeWe

Conscious Leadership & Social Contributor Cultivator • International Speaker • Author • Multi Award-Winning Social Entrepreneur of YouMeWe Social Impact Group Inc. — Make your contribution count for you • your organization • your community — YouMeWe.ca • we@youmewe.ca • 1.416.570.6557

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    1 Response to "Out with empathy, in with compassion – a skill that will enhance well-being"

    • Ellen Boddington

      Hi Suzanne, once again, you’ve nailed it. Well done putting into words what the mind twirls about when realizing empathy is close but not quite right in the situation. Thank you for sharing! Ellen

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