Former President Barack Obama once said, “Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”
Oftentimes people don’t realize the difference between sympathy and empathy, and they use these words interchangeably. But there are major differences between the two that result in different outcomes.
When you feel sympathy, you express concern for another person’s predicament. You might say, “I hear what you are saying, and I’m sorry that this has happened.” You acknowledge their feelings, at least at a surface level.
When you feel empathy, you put yourself in their shoes and connect with their experience as if it were your own. You might say, “I understand what you are going through, and I feel for you.” It’s a deeper experience because you are taking on the emotions of the other person.
When working in industries that serve others, it is important to show sympathy, but showing empathy can take community relationships to another level. It can help you build and maintain a more diverse staff. It makes it easier to see different perspectives and to create safe spaces. It can also help create a better quality of life for yourself and for others around you. Here are three steps you can take to be more empathetic.
Use active listening skills.
The first step to being empathetic is to not only listen but to listen actively. Start by putting away all distractions and giving the person your undivided attention. Ask open-ended questions to get a better understanding of how this person has been affected, and listen without judgment. It’s okay to simply listen. They probably don’t need you to offer advice and help them find a solution. They simply want someone to listen, which is why it’s important to make sure you’re listening for what the person might need.
Acknowledge their feelings and emotions.
After using your active listening skills, the next best thing you can do is to acknowledge how they feel. Maybe you’ve never gone through the exact situation, but surely you’ve had an experience that has made you feel the same emotions. For example, even if you haven’t lost a close sibling, you might have felt sadness from losing a close relative. When you connect and validate someone’s feelings, it helps make them feel supported, thus creating a deeper connection and relationship with those you serve.
Going through a difficult experience can be lonely. Action speaks louder than words. Support the person by doing something that will help them or their cause. You can show that you care by making phone calls on their behalf. Write a note to them to brighten their day. Spend time with them if they need company.
More empathetic reactions can help to change the world that we live in. With empathy, we find ways to connect with others even if we come from different backgrounds. Continue to practice empathy by listening to what others have to say without judgment, validate that what they feel is real and support them by taking action.
Dulana Reese is a Mississippi native living and thriving in Chicago. She serves as the Chief of Staff for State Representative Kam Buckner. In this capacity, she supports the representative by building relationships with community stakeholders, inspiring their team to go above and beyond, ensuring the community’s voices are heard, and playing various roles on campaigns. She graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree in Communications Studies and earned a master’s in Public Service Management from DePaul University. In her spare time, she loves a good Netflix binge, reading, listening to music and practicing the harmonica.