Empathy, sympathy, compassion … and chiggers

Empathy is a Big Deal in leadership and management these days, and that’s a good thing. Photo of a red button with the words LISTEN - HEAR - UNDERSTAND

But there’s a lot of confusion still running rampant about what empathy actually is, how we can demonstrate it, and what it means in relation to sympathy and compassion.

In fact, there’s so much confusion that Googling any of those terms, or a composite query of “empathy vs. sympathy vs. compassion,” yields contradictory results. Ugh.

So here’s my take on it, and I’ll give it to you in the form of a story about my favorite summer subject: chiggers.

As you may know from personal experience or from reading my previous article that discussed them, chiggers are the invisible-to-the-naked-eye larval form of a mite. They live primarily in the south, in grassy areas such as meadows, lawns, and golf courses. They can travel from your ankles to your waist in 15 minutes – pretty remarkable for something so small – and they love to bite in the warm, delicate-skinned areas of the body, such as the backs of knees and … I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

The bites itch like a dozen mosquito bites rolled into one.

We walk our dog on the local golf course.Photo of a Golden Doodle running toward the camera on a green golf course in the fog.

I am absolutely the preferred food for chiggers. I’m the equivalent of chocolate to a chocolate-lover, or cheese to a cheese-aficionado. They see me coming, cry “Yum!”, and run toward me.

So when my husband commented that he’d gotten a few bites from a trip we took to a local arboretum – he’d gone off the paved path to take flower photos – I felt a great deal of empathy.

I understood exactly what he was talking about, in this case from personal experience.

Empathy does not have to arise from personal experience, however. It also arises from a sincere effort to truly understand where someone is coming from. (You can read more about how to learn and practice empathy here.)

What I did not feel for my husband was sympathy.

Sympathy involves a deeper feeling of emotional involvement and – in the case of something sad or unfortunate, such as chigger bites – sorrow for the person in question.

Since I collect the majority of the chigger bites in our family, his complaints about being bitten did not make me feel particularly sympathetic. That may be unkind of me – it probably is – but hold on, because it’s going to get worse.

I also didn’t feel compassion.

Compassion creates a desire to do something for the other person. I could have gone to the bathroom to get the prescription compounded medication that the local pharmacy makes to soothe the (absolutely maddening, mosquito-times-12) itch. Thinking back on the conversation, I’ll admit I now feel kinda bad that I didn’t – but at the time, nope. I guess that wasn’t very nice of me, but I hope you can feel at least some empathy for my situation, and possibly also some sympathy!

So there you have it.

Empathy = understanding

Sympathy = emotional investment

Compassion = taking action

Empathy is 100% appropriate in the workplace – and in fact, it’s a necessity for leadership through influence.

Sympathy may or may not be relevant in a work situation.

Compassion may be appropriate, depending on the situation. In cases, for instance, of burnout, you as a leader and manager definitely need to take action – show compassion – to help your employee recover.

You’ll find different definitions and approaches out there; as I said, there’s a lot of disagreement. I present this as a hopefully-helpful working model, and – let’s face it – as a way to vent some of my bitterness about chiggers.

I mean, at least you can see and therefore swat a mosquito!

First-line managers need support to navigate the nuances of these types of questions and become the managers and leaders their teams need and your company needs.

I’m opening the doors on a Community for first-line managers: a Community of Practice, Learning, and Experience, offering first-line managers the support they need. Check it out.