In “The Empathy Exams” the author, Leslie Jamieson, works as a medical actor, pretending to have certain diseases and working with new doctors to develop their clinical skills and bedside manner.
At the end of each encounter, she grades the doctors on their bedside manner. She contrasts those who simply say the “right” words “This must be difficult for you” with those who demonstrate genuine empathy through their humility, their trembling hands, and their disarming words, “Excuse me, is it ok if I touch you here?”
Empathy comes from the Greek/Latin words meaning “in” (em) and “feelings” (pathos). It implies a journey. You must travel from your own being into the feelings of another.
Sympathy comes from the Greek/Latin/French words meaning “sympathia” or fellow feeling or community of feelings. In other words, if you are sympathetic you already share and understand the feelings of another.
Both empathy and sympathy are necessary in our world, but empathy allows expansion from our existing worlds into others’ worlds, where deeper understandings may occur.
Empathy can be demonstrated through deep, active listening and through a loving presence. This is the kind of listening where you set aside your own agenda and talk less, except perhaps to reflect back what the other person says.
In the next week, I encourage you to identify places where you would like to demonstrate more empathy—with the difficult co-worker, the obstreperous child, or the mentally declining parent. Discover if there’s a way to travel from your own prejudices/limitations/judgments into the world of the other person.
And may we pursue our paths, enjoying sympathy with like minds and challenging ourselves to create empathy with those for whom we don’t automatically feel sympathy,