One of the greatest gifts friends can give each other is the gift of empathy – especially in very difficult times. But very often, we act with sympathy instead of empathy. However, empathy and sympathy are two very different things. In fact, empathy can support your relationship, while sympathy can actually weaken it. So, what’s the difference between the two? Keep reading to find out.

According to Dr. Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection, “empathy fuels connection” while sympathy “drives disconnection.”

But why is that?

Scholar and researcher, Theresa Wiseman, has identified four important characteristics of empathy. They are as follows:

1. Perspective taking: The ability to see another person’s perspective as true

2. Staying out of judgment: Seeing the person’s perspective without judging it

3. Recognizing emotion: Being able to see someone’s emotional experience and communicating that to them

4. Feeling with empathy: Feeling along with them, instead of just observing their emotion.

Each of these four empathy qualities helps to cultivate connection between two people – even if you don’t “figure it all out” or “fix” the problem. Because what usually helps more than anything else is being able to connect, without judgement, with another person.

But sympathy doesn’t create connection. Instead, it creates disconnection by trying to fix and/or dismiss what’s happening. Sympathy says, “Well, at least it’s not as bad as x, y or z.” Or, “At least, you still have x, y or z.”

However, when you’re in pain, the last thing you want is to hear that your pain isn’t that bad, or that the situation isn’t that bad. Instead, you want (and need) a safe space to open up and share. And it is what allows you to do that.

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