Wednesday, December 11, 2013

PSA: Empathy Good, Sympathy, Not Really Cutting It

I ran across this little video today, on Facebook, where I often worry that I am wasting my time.  Finding things like this lets me know that I am not always wasting time.  

The video is an animated snippet of a talk by Dr. Brene Brown, a TED talk phenomenon and, for want of a better term, a motivational speaker (though I hate the term, as it always conjures up a van down by the river) who is an expert on shame and empathy.  The idea so delightfully expressed here is that what we say to those around us, especially those who are struggling, isn't as important as our connections with them.  To make a real connection, we have to offer genuine understanding.  We do this, according to Dr. Brown, by linking our own experiences to those of the person in front of us.  Sometimes though, all we can do is let someone know that we care about how they feel, and that we are willing to listen without making judgments about their situation.  Now you see why this has been so cleverly illustrated above-- it's cumbersome to explain how to be empathetic.  

What really caught my attention, though, is the contrast drawn between empathy and sympathy:  empathy gets into the muddle with you, while sympathy offers to fix you a sandwich.  I tend to go into problem solving mode when people share their troubles with me, and I realize how much this is like offering a sandwich, rather than a lifeline, to someone who is drowning.  As a pretty analytic person, my first response is to identify the cause of a problem then formulate a solution to alleviate it-- see, that doesn't even sound like being a good friend, it sounds like being an auto mechanic. (Not that auto mechanics can't be great friends.) This reminds me of a time, about 25 years ago that a friend called to tell me about something awful that had happened to her.  She related her story and I immediately started to throw out ideas for her next steps.  She cut me off in mid-sentence, and said, "I didn't call you to solve the problems, I just wanted you to listen and let me know you understand how much this sucks."  I don't think I got the lesson at the time, but this video brought that back and reminded me of how much I don't know.  

I'm gonna keep working on that.

*This video was brought to my attention by Brain Pickings, which I have mentioned here previously.  Can't say how much I really love this website, even though I remain less than lukewarm on the name...

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