I've always had the vague notion that sympathy meant you felt bad for someone, but empathy meant you could relate to the situation they were going through because you had been through something similar. But that notion leaves me powerless to help friends who are going through situations that I’ve never experienced. I can listen with sympathy but not empathy.
However, Our Community Listens teaches us that we can grow in the skill of showing empathy, even if the person we're seeking to empathize with is going through something we've never experienced.
Our Community Listens defines empathy as "seeing it as the other person sees it, and feeling it as the other person feels it." We have empathy when we communicate that we understand another person’s perspective and emotion without judgment.
Similar emotions, not similar circumstances
What if I have a friend who is going through a tough time in a situation I have never been through? I can ask myself if I have experienced similar feelings, even though the situation was different. Have I been through tough times? Yes. Can I remember how I felt in those tough times? Yes. So can I still have empathy? Yes. I can remember what it was like to feel pain, loss, heartache, anger, or weariness and begin to see it as she is seeing it, and feel it as she is feeling it.
Growing in empathy requires reflective listening
How do I know that I truly am seeing and feeling the situation as she does? I may think I know, but I must also embrace reflective listening to ensure that, though I may not empathize perfectly, I am understanding her as well as possible. When I listen well, I will grow in my understanding of the feelings of the other person, which will allow me to better show empathy.
It is through listening with empathy that we help people heal and move forward with their lives. What a wonderful skill to continue to develop for the benefit of many.