The root of the word empathy is PATHOS— the Greek word for feeling. SYMpathy means acknowledging the feelings of someone else, as in, “I sympathize with you.” And empathy is a term for a deeper feeling. It means, “I feel what you feel. I can put myself in your shoes.”
Sympathy results in kindness and sometimes pity. Empathy results in actually feeling the pain, or the joy, of the other person.
You can see how the willingness to be flexible comes more easily when you can put yourself in the other person’s place. Empathy is a key skill taught in negotiating. William Ury, in his book, Getting Past No, makes the point that every human being has a deep need for his or her feelings to be recognized—knowing this can help tremendously in a difficult negotiation by creating a climate for agreement.
Ury counsels that it’s important to acknowledge both the factual point and the feelings of the other person. He uses the example of an employee approaching a boss. The employee says, “I just found out Dale makes $2,000 more a year than I do for the same job.” Trying to explain why Dale makes more money, even if the reason is a good one, only makes the employee angrier. Instead, you must acknowledge the fact and the feelings first: “You think we’re taking advantage of you and you’re angry. I can understand that. I’d probably feel the same way.”
That isn’t what an angry person expects. By acknowledging the employee’s feelings, you’ve helped him calm down. His next statement might be, “Well, why shouldn’t I make as much as Dale does?” That shows he’s ready to hear your explanation.
The feeling of empathy is much easier to come by when you care about the other person and take the time to feel what they’re feeling. In the worlds of business, politics or the professions, that feeling of empathy may not come as easily.
All the great teachers of empathy for others start with the same point: You cannot truly feel the pain or the joy or the emotion of another until and unless you’re able to feel the same thing in yourself. Do you acknowledge your own pain? Can you feel your own joy? Real empathy lies in simply finding the same place within yourself that the other person is experiencing.
You might not have had exactly the same experience, but you’ve known the sadness of loss or the anger of feeling cheated, or the sense of righteousness at injustice. Some of us don’t take the time to feel our own feelings, so when someone else expresses a feeling, we don’t have much to refer to.
You can always wear your own shoes, and you do most of the time. But having the ability to relate to others’ feelings is an asset.