I Thought I Knew the Difference Until She Cried

Empathy versus Sympathy

Yesterday, while I was on my daily walk, I was chatting with a friend. She was sharing her feelings about a situation at work that has been mega challenging. I felt bad for her and was listening. Then my head started shouting at me, “It is solvable. Let me. Let me. Let me do it.”
My coach hat when on a little too fast.
I was being sympathetic, but really what she had needed was for me to be empathetic.
I have given thought to not coaching people when they just need to be listened to, but has never occurred to me to notice how sympathy is typically the energy of problem solving and empathy is listening.
Because I had not yet figured that out, by the end of my suggestions, my friend burst into tears.
It was a reminder to me to recognize what would make a difference for HER “the person” and what I was able/willing to provide in the moment.
The Difference 
Sympathy = does require a willingness to see where someone is. You recognize they are having a challenge or bad feelings. You might even feel a pang of feeling sorry or bad for someone about the situation they are finding themselves in. It doesn’t require vulnerability on the listeners part, because we stay in an observation role outside of the person. Sometimes this is the approach when you don’t have the space to step in with someone. It isn’t bad to offer sympathy, but it isn’t the same as giving empathy.
Empathy = it is about joining someone where they are. Recognizing the validity of their point of view even if it differs from your own. It requires a bit of vulnerability because often we don’t know what to say. Our desire to “mind our own business” or “quickly fix it” hurries it when sometimes people just need the freedom to be who and where they are in that moment so they know it is okay.

Today I made her cry, tonight I made her laugh. Friends and life can be some of the best teachers.

On my next walk, friend, I promise I won’t make you use klenex!