An Empathic Response Does Not Include, “At Least…”

This past snow day a friend pointed me to an outstanding video on the difference between empathy and sympathy that was done by Dr. Brene Brown.

If you’ve got 3 minutes, you can watch it here:  (In addition to being short, it is both funny and charming.)

The point Dr. Brown makes is that there is an enormous difference between having an empathic response and having a sympathetic response—and that the shared humanity inherent in an empathic response trumps any sympathetic response you might make.

Why is this—and why is it hard? Because, Dr. Brown states, an empathic response demands your vulnerability. Because, in her words: “in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

This can be hard—and we prefer things not to be hard.

Next, Brown points out that an empathic response never includes the phrase, “At least…” whereas a sympathetic response almost always does. Here’s one example she gives:

Statement: “John’s getting kicked out of school”
Response: “At least Sarah is an ‘A’ student.”

“Hhmmm…” I thought as I watched. “Interesting. I do that.”

So I thought about it some more and came up with a few more ‘at least’ responses:

Statement: “I think I’m going to be laid off.”
Response: “At least your husband/wife is working.”

Statement: “I think I’m going to get passed over for promotion.”
Response: “At least you got a raise.”

You get the idea and- frankly– I find it fascinating.  The sympathetic response, the “at least” response, requires the least from us. It allows us to move briskly along to the part where, phew!, we can talk about something else.

This is no good.

With this in mind, then, I am working to catch myself in those moments when it’s tempting to give my least, and instead try to give my best— to feel the feelings required by an empathic response.

I invite you to do the same.