Empathy or sympathy?

A client who is involved in human resource training asked me what the difference between empathy and sympathy was. On wanting to know why she was posing this question, she said that she had witnessed an argument between two of her friends regarding the differences between empathy and sympathy. Apparently the argument got very heated and my client was asked to offer her opinion. I empathized(?) or maybe was it sympathized(?) with her regarding the situation that she found herself in since anything that she would say around this topic would have probably placed her in one or other of the two camps of understanding that had unfolded.

Stormy clouds over Table Mountain, Cape Town

When you see the world through a narrative and social constructionist perspective, you realize that people are constantly drawing distinctions around the meaning of words and ideas. Most of us are not even aware of the tacit assumptions we make as we slice up ideas and draw rigid boundaries around them in order to make us feel certain in our understanding. This certainty tends to make us feel secure. It offers us self-perceived power in that we ‘know’. It makes us speak with authority, to have an expert opinion.

Personally, I find it difficult to speak to experts who believe that they have water-tight understanding of any concept. Usually these experts are good at giving advice, of telling those around them what the ‘truth’ may be. This seems to be driven by the need to be right. However, in my experience the certainty of knowing usually prevents any deeper understanding or meaning to emerge. Very little new information unfolds in such cases.

What is interesting for me is that new meaning usually unfolds when you examine and explore the blurry, gray world that exists between two ideas that sit close to each other. It is in this blurry, gray-land that uncertainty prevails. Now uncertainty usually activates insecurity and this is not a comfortable feeling. The mind usually wants to draw conclusions, to capture an idea in its totally, to maybe even simplify the complexity so as to feel relieved that understanding has been reached.

Top athletes are always having to operate and perform in the ‘world of uncertainty’. Many athletes are not aware of this. But if you think of it, any competition is riddled with uncertainty. For example, it is only at the end of a match that a result is known. I believe that mental preparation should focus on making an athlete feel secure with the uncertainty of top performance. It is only then that they will be able to relax and deal with the unpredictability of events that unfold during a match. When you function in the ‘uncertainty domain’ you are alive to the present moment.

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