Sympathy is defined as having feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, while empathy is about having the ability to understand and feel the emotions of another.
When leaders feel pity or sorrow for another they are more likely to react or respond with a desire to make the other person feel better, while leaders with empathy are more likely to respond with the wisdom of understanding the views and desires of another without necessarily being swayed by them.
Cultivating empathy is key to moving into the space of what has come to be known as “emotional intelligence,” the capacity for emotional awareness and communication.
So while leadership experts are hailing the importance of emotional intelligence and empathy, the question is, how do we become more emotionally intelligent? How do we cultivate empathy?
Some things sound easier said than done, and even more challenging with empathy and emotional intelligence in that we can’t learn them from a book or a college course. Much the same way it’s been said that a person cannot truly sing the blues unless their heart has been miserably broken, in order to feel another’s emotions we must first begin with ourselves.
We must learn to feel all that we feel, to delve deeper into our own emotions, to become explorers of emotion, dancing with it, singing with it, speaking and sharing our emotions, and invite the same of others around us. As we do this over time we become more adept at discerning our emotions, and in so doing we become more adept at discerning the emotions of others.
Over time, much time, we become emotionally more intelligent and can make decisions with empathy instead of sympathy.
There is just one trick I will share as a fellow traveler on the road toward emotional intelligence, which is to not judge what we feel. Just feel the feelings and say to yourself, “How interesting that I’m feeling this at this time. This is interesting.”
So often our feelings come from places unknown, and other times they are remnants from the past. Feeling without judgment allows us to simply be with the emotions and explore them. Judging our emotions blocks our ability to fully feel them, and so they remain as stagnant reminders of unresolved conflict.
There is a saying I once heard; that when we learn to feel our feelings again, the good news is that we get our feelings back, and the bad news is that we get our feelings back. Remaining in a place of non-judgment allows the energy to flow, which is the place at which we develop empathy and become more emotionally intelligent.