Me, Empathetic? Hell NO!

I do not feel your pain. In fact, I do not want to feel your pain. What is more, I think feeling your pain is actually a psychological problem.

Before you start thinking, here goes Kless off the deep end again, let me explain.

Despite the fact that the two words are used interchangeably, empathy and sympathy do not mean the same thing. Empathy means to experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself. Sympathy means to understand the outlook or emotions of another being. There is a big difference.

Great leaders (and consultants) exhibit sympathy, not empathy. Empathy implies that the leader would share in the anxiety of the follower. This would hamper the ability of the leader to lead and therefore not be in alignment with great leadership.

Edwin Friedman in his masterpiece, A Failure of Nerve, says of empathy, “…It has become a power tool in the hands of the weak to sabotage the strong. It serves as a rationalization for the inability of those in helping positions to develop self-control and not enable or interfere. The focus on empathy rather than responsibility lessens the potential for survival of both leaders and followers.”

Leaders need to be self-differentiated. They need to exhibit a strong sense of self. They need to be autonomous, independent, individualistic, and, yes, sympathetic. They need to understand the feelings of their followers, but not to experience them.

Me, sympathetic? Hell YES!


  1. Ed,

    I thought it was the other way round.

    Sympathy is experiencing it: If you’re seasick, I join you at the rail and puke together. There is an emotional involvement.

    Empathy is knowing it: If you’re seasick, I call the doctor. There is mental acknowledgement of the problem and possibility to help.

    Merriam-Webster definition of sympathy: The act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another.

    Merriam-Webster’s definition of empathy: The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner;

    Am I missing something?

  2. Ed,

    I think I get the point you are making. However, I’ve always thought a little differently.

    To sympathize with someone is to feel sorry for that person.

    To empathize with someone is to be able to put yourself in their shoes and see issues from their perspective.

    I think that a consultant must be able to empathize to be effective. How else would the consultant ever truly understand the issues without being able to see them from the customer’s perspective.

    I certainly don’t sympathize (feel sorry for) with our customers. They dig their owned damned holes!

  3. Ed Kless says:

    @Bald Dog & John, thanks for joining in the dialogue.

    With all due respect to Merriam-Webster, both Friedman and I see it they way I describe above. Empathy is the actual feeling of someone else’s pain. Sympathy is the understanding of their feeling, but not experiencing it yourself.

    John what you define as sympathy, I would call pity.

    In my research for this post I encountered this:
    Pity is, “Things are bad for you, you seem as though you need help.”
    Sympathy is, “I’m sorry for your sadness, I wish to help.”
    Empathy is, “You feel sad and now I feel sad.”
    Apathy is, “I don’t care how you feel.”
    Telepathy is, “I read your sadness without you expressing it to me in any normal way.”

  4. Ed,

    The point you’re making though is that a good consultant/leader must be able to understand a customer’s business from the customer’s perspective without becoming emotionally involved.

    The ability to do that is a primary behavioral trait for every successful consultant/leader.

    Without that ability the consultant/leader will fail every time.

  5. Yup, well said John.

  6. Ed,
    As always I enjoy your material very much … but Tom Varjan is correct unless I am missing some specific “English Grammatical Transgression” between US English and the rest of the world. This of course, distracts nothing from the intent of your post.

    ?Empathy? is understanding what another person feels, and ?sympathy? is feeling what another person feels.

    The first allows you to appreciate and adjust with their psychological/emotional position.

    The second creates such a bond with that other person, that they ?sell you? instead of vice versa.
    E.g., ?You?re right, you don?t need this seminar program right now.?

    Ric Willmot

  7. Ed Kless says:

    Hi all,

    Thanks for all of the comments. I personally enjoy debating semantics, so let’s keep it coming.

    Maybe it is an American interpretation, but according to my American Heritage Dictionary, empathy is defined as “understanding so intimate that the feelings, thoughts, and motives, of one are readily felt by another. From the Greek EN (in) PATHOS (FEEL) – a feeling in.”

    Sympathy – “the capacity for understanding the feelings of others. From the Greek SUMPATHEIA (affected by like feelings).”

    In short, empathy is a twentieth century construction of two Greek words. According to Friedman empathy is an English translation of a German construction of the Greek, and does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1922. Sympathy is a direct etymological translation of a single Greek word.

    As Ric mentioned, either way, the meaning of my post is clear. John’s comment is an excellent expression of my intent.

    And clearly there may be only three people in the world who care, but since I am one of them…

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