Are Empathy and Sympathy Dangerous?

Are Empathy and Sympathy Dangerous?​

11 November 2018 by Rachel Paling

Over the past few weeks, I have had first hand experience of empathy really falling short of having the desired effect and the other evening, I was explaining to my online group of language teachers the difference between empathy and compassion from the neuroscientific perspective.

One of my ladies actually asked me the question “ so, can empathetic feedback in fact be ineffective?” my answer would be “yes! As a coach we have to be aware whether our feedback really has the right effect or not”.

The word empathy originates from the Greek empatheia from em- + pathos feelings, emotion and even the particle path – meaning to experience, undergo or suffer. Merriam-Webster quotes the definition of empathy as

1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner also the capacity for this

2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

Let us compare empathy with sympathy – (and the word sympathy is one of the most frequent false friends for English language learners as the brain automatically thinks it refers to the stem sympatic- denoting friendliness in many, many languages, but NOT in English!). Sympathy really means having the capacity to share the feelings of another, whereas empathy is about imagining feelings that we do not actually have.

Personally, I do think there is a lot of confusion between sympathy and empathy and as a coach or language coach we have to be very clear which is which and we have to be very conscious whether our empathetic or sympathetic comments really are helpful for our client.

Let me share with you an experience that I’ve had over the last few weeks. About two weeks ago I lost my purse. Three people responded, when I told them what happened, with their own stories of when it had happened to them. Honestly, in my moments of despair, their stories really did not help me. In fact, I didn’t feel they were being sympathetic or even empathetic, it was almost like they had ignored my situation and pain just to launch into their own painful experience. This is a classic example where maybe we try to be sympathetic by sharing our own experience, but we lose sight of the present moment.

Another very good example, for me, was when I did my very first coaching assessment and Rachel Bamber PCC was my assessor. I had to coach Rachel around a dilemma that she had. When she shared her dilemma, I replied “I know how you feel, I find that I also have the same problem”. When it came to the feedback, Rachel asked me what I thought that comment had provoked in her and I replied that my intention was to show empathy. However, she actually had thought “Oh dear, if she has the same problem how is she going to coach me around this!”. I will never forget this as a very powerful example confusing sympathy with empathy and perhaps we could say that as a coach sympathy is dangerous. And one of the most dangerous things when we are talking with somebody who has a problem, who is really depressed or having a bad time, one of the worst things we can do is to say “oh, I feel the same…… I have the same problem…….oh, that happened to me …… that’s exactly how I feel”. This does not help the person who is suffering as he or she does not feel recognised in what they are experiencing nor does it offer any help or solution. It totally deflects and diverts the conversation.

The expert coach, in my opinion, does not bring in comments relating to own experience. Instead the expert coach will deeply listen, acknowledge and fully recognise what that coachee is experienceing and feeling. In effect, the coach is holding the space for that person to express their situation, their troubles, their pain offering no judgements, no opinions and no comparing parallels from the coach’s life. I will never forget some years ago doing a coaching practice with one of my amazing Neurolanguage coaches, who shared with me that she had a problem with her neighbours, who were constantly parking in front of her garage and blocking her, preventing her from freely coming and going as she pleased. Throughout the whole conversation, I clearly remember my whole being was fired up because at that particular moment in time I was also experiencing the same with one of my neighbours and believe me it was frustrating and annoying to each day waste time finding the neighbour and politely asking him to remove his vehicle! Not once when I was coaching did I mention that I shared her problem, I remained neutral, non-judgemental, non-opinionated and never once reflected my inner feelings because I knew that it would not help her in this situation, which was her situation, her reality, her dilemma and I was there to be her sounding board and coach her towards her own solution.

This is when as a coach we shift from empathy to compassion. Compassion in fact means to understand the pain of another person and to want to mitigate that pain. In other words, it is where the coach recognises and acknowledges the pain of another, but swiftly moves the conversation into action and solution. For example, “I am so sorry to hear that you have lost your purse, now what are the steps you’re going to take to remedy this loss?”

The fascinating thing is what happens to the brain when we feel empathy and what happens when we feel compassion because in fact neuroscience demonstrates how the brain reacts differently to both. Tania Singer is the director of the Department of social neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for human cognitive and brain sciences in Leipzig and she clearly explains the differences. With empathy, mirror neurons trigger and in fact the pain and reward circuits of the brain light up. “I feel what you feel”. However, with compassion the areas related to love, the Periaqueductal grey which triggers the vagus nerve, light up. “I recognise and acknowledge what you are feeling, but I want to help you move on from this”.

How does this relate to language learning? So many times, our learners say to us, “oh my pronunciation is terrible, I’m never going to learn this language” etc etc. As a language coach, we have to ask ourselves how effective is it to reply “no, your pronunciation is fine, you are doing really well, I really don’t think that. In my opinion you are making great progress……” Because in fact no matter how many times we say this, how our learner is feeling will not change. It may make them feel momentarily better, but it does not recognise and acknowledge their real feelings. The best approach is to fully acknowledge and then to blast into compassion. The best reply would be “thank you for sharing your feelings with me and I’m really sensing that this is something that is troubling you. So, what can we do to help you feel better about your pronunciation? What strategies can we now introduce to really combat these feelings relating to pronunciation?”

And this continuous recognition and acknowledgement and desire to push people into finding their own way forward should be the constant mission of the expert Neurolanguage Coach.

Rachel Marie Paling

© 2024 Rachel Marie Paling

Leave a comment