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Are You an Empath or a Sympath?

“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.”

– Daniel H. Pink, author and researcher.

In conflict resolution, empathy is key. As neutrals (mediators), we need to understand the mindset of the people in front of us and how to get them past whatever is blocking them from reaching an agreement.

The transformative approach to resolving conflicts requires empathy from the mediator and the participants. Transformative mediation isn’t only about getting agreement about the details of the dispute. It’s an effort to get at what lies underneath, what can be transformed and fundamentally change the relationship.

Transformative conflict coaching is about uncovering the coachee’s hidden emotions and supports her in choosing consciously how to respond when faced with conflict. When I work with clients, the first thing we examine is the difference between empathy and sympathy. The difference can be explained in this way.


Your friend calls you up and tells you that her boyfriend has cheated on her. You immediately become irate and say terrible things about the boyfriend and how he has mistreated her and that she should dump him and move on. You acted on your agenda as a friend who cares and doesn’t want her friend to be hurt. She’s left, however, with her sadness and distress.


Your friend calls you up and tells you that her boyfriend has cheated on her. Before responding, you let her talk. You ask how she’s feeling and what she’s thinking without putting your opinions in the mix. Basically, you listen, ask questions and in that way stay on her agenda and care for her in the moment. You have helped her process her emotions, and, now, she can make a conscious decision about her boyfriend and their relationship.

“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”

– Brene Brown, Author and Researcher

Theresa Wiseman, nursing scholar, has identified the following four attributes of empathy:

  • Perspective taking, being able to see something from another’s point of view

  • Staying out of judgment

  • Recognizing emotion in other people, and

  • Communicating that recognition and understanding

In essence, empathy is an effort to see the humanity of the other person. When you express genuine empathy for someone, she can more likely relate to you and eventually trust you. Transformative conflict resolution, whether mediated by professionals or not, requires that the participants see things from each other’s perspective, that they hold their judgments at bay, and that they see what the other person is feeling. Only by doing those things will they be able to understand each other and begin to repair the relationship.

I have had a number of clients who have said to me some variation of the following, “This is how I am, and I’m not going to change.” When I hear this, my gut reaction would be to say, “yeah, well, how’s that working for you?”

I know, though, that there is something behind that statement for each person. I’ve learned that it can be because the person doesn’t feel heard, or they feel disrespected, or they see themselves as always having to give in to the other person, or they are exhausted by the conflict and just want it all to go away. The statement means different things for different people.

To get to the answer to my flippant question, which is essential for them to realize, I must use empathy. If I don’t, I will never be able to reach underneath and find out what is really bothering the person. Without that, we will never be able to repair, restore or transform the relationship.

Try this:

Imagine yourself looking at someone who makes you angry. Consider what you see them doing, what you hear them saying that makes you so mad. Now, imagine yourself looking at you from their eyes in the same situation. Consider how they see you, what they hear you saying. Then imagine you are a third person looking at the two of you in the situation. From that outside perspective, what do you see, what do you hear? Does this experience create greater empathy from you towards that other person? If so, how might you act differently going forward to eliminate the conflict and restore your relationship?

So, are you an empath or a sympath?

Choose empathy and do conflict well.

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