If someone were to stop you on the street and ask, “What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?” You might sigh and say, “Uhm……. It’s one of those warm and fuzzy emotions, like when your buddy just got a broken arm or lost his dog”, and you say, “Really sorry to hear.”
But scratch the surface just a bit and some important distinctions become apparent. Sympathy is basically static and a bit innocuous. You express sympathy to your friend or relative, they smile and give you a hug and you both press on.
Empathy, on the other hand, is more interesting in that it can manifest itself in many directions, some self-serving, some possibly life-saving, and in a different way, empathy can be used for truly dark and ulterior motives. Surprised?
Let me begin with a truly coarse example just to make the point. In battle and in the very essence of war, sympathizing with the enemy could very easily send you on a quick trip to the infirmary… possibly the morgue. In war, your prime directive is to win. The corollary to that is: the other guy is supposed to lose. What does that have to do with empathy?
Let’s take a look at one of WWII General George Patton’s famous quotes, and things begin to clear. He yelled it right after he captured the German 21st Panzer Division at the Battle of El Guettar. At the point when he knew he had won, he yelled into the field, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard. I read your book!”
Now, let’s look at what empathy actually is from a technical standpoint. Empathy is the process, whether benevolent or devious by which you place yourself in the other person’s situation. It’s almost always assumed that when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it’s for noble reasons. Well…not always. The reasons run the whole spectrum of morality.
Empathy can be proactive. It can be used for financial gain, sexual gain, social gain or it can be used as a self-defense weapon as well. Think of any sport, such as football, baseball, soccer, tennis, even a friendly game of chess, and the real goal is to crawl inside the mind of your opponent…put yourself in his shoes…then stare back at yourself and see what you would do. If you know what your opponent will do next, you have one hell of an advantage.
Just as easily, it can be done to strengthen a marriage, a business relationship, or make folks more at home at a nursing home. A profound awareness of what your mate, adversary, or business partner is thinking or feeling has HUGE advantages…often for both parties.
Empathy is used to increase sales. The best salesmen are also the best empaths. I have several chapters devoted just to this.
Empathy can also be used make women find you more desirable. There was a recent episode on the automobile series, Top Gear, in which they’re trying to find out which super car is the biggest chick magnet. They had three super cars: a Lamborghini, a Ferrari and I think an Aston Martin…doesn’t really matter about the cars because…know what? Not one of those super cars impressed any of the girls. Care to guess what they discovered was a magnet for impressing women? A puppy. Didn’t matter much what the breed was, all it had to be was little, cuddly, and cute. Most women are hard-wired to be on the look-out for a man who will treat them like an equal and look out for their future children. A guy with a puppy flat-out trumps a guy in a Ferrari.
In researching for the book, working titled: The E-Factor, I quickly discovered that empathy was and is an incredibly powerful tool. It can even save your ass in a traffic encounter, a cocktail party, Thanksgiving dinner, your wife’s pregnancy. The list goes on and on ad infinitum. But it’s the nuances of how to use empathy that are the most fascinating.
Does this all sound just a little bit manipulative? Potentially it is. But it can be an equally powerful tool for the good. Any wife or husband with a big dollop of empathy is well on their way to a solid and happy marriage. If your wife is really into knitting, a skein or two of gorgeous yarn might light her fire more than a box of chocolates. Is she a birder? A new cedar birdhouse from Lowes just might impress her a lot more than a rosebud. It tells her, my guy has actually put himself in MY shoes. He’s thinking of Me!!!
To balance the gender equation, even with husbands’ and wives’ duties well-defined, come out sometime when your husband has just put wax on the car, pull out an old t-shirt and start buffing…not because it’s your job but…because it isn’t. That one small duty is always noted and it will come back to you fifty-fold.
A tie-in for writers: When you’re roughing-out your latest masterpiece, get it all down, the good, the bad, and the ugly. When you set to the task of editing your masterpiece, look with a cold pragmatic eye at a word, sentence, paragraph, or even a chapter that’s truly unnecessary. One eloquent editor put it this way. “When you’re editing, cross-out all the crap that nobody reads, that everyone’s going to skip over.” Adverbs are a great place to start. They can be very, very, very boring to a reader.
Have questions? Disagree? Have something you’d like to ad? Let me know.