When one of my clients experienced discrimination in the workplace, she confided in a colleague. She had hoped to feel understood, validated, and supported. Instead, her colleague’s response made her feel dismissed and belittled.
She was a high performer at her company, but she had recently been denied a leadership position. “You’re Asian,” her boss had said. “You’re too deferential. You cannot lead.”
She recounted the conversation to a co-worker. The co-worker replied by insisting discrimination couldn’t possibly be the reason she was denied a promotion. “It can’t be. It must be something else,” they said.
Her colleague may have been trying to shield her from the pain of something as harmful as discrimination by dismissing that it could have happened. But her intent did not match the impact of her statements. She didn’t react with empathy, she reacted with sympathy — a reaction that expresses pity, but can lead to further isolation and disconnection instead of connection and support.
People excel in environments of psychological safety, in which they feel heard, understood, and without the worry of self-protection, instead focusing their energies on thriving in their work.
Leaders can help create these environments by expressing empathy — not sympathy — in vulnerable moments. Here are some tips to help you do that.
Be comfortable with vulnerability.
The past year has shown us that no one is immune from turbulent times, and leaving hardships “at the door” when we go to work is neither simple nor healthy — especially when the door to the office is the door to our homes. When leaders are the first to show vulnerability, they give others permission to do the same. Some people often think being vulnerable is “too soft” or a sign of weakness, but it is, in fact, a display of courage and strength. If leaders show that they can work through hardship without denying it or brushing it off, then everyone else feels empowered to do the same.
Remember the 4E model.
In Inclusive Conversations, Mary-Frances Winters writes that empathy is the final stage of a four-step process that begins with gaining exposure across differences, continues with having meaningful experiences with those who are different, and requires engaging in ongoing education. This 4E model — exposure, experience, engage, empathy — allows us to more genuinely understand what someone might be feeling, even if we don’t share the same lived experiences.
Choose words carefully
Empathy can create a connection, while sympathy can create an uneven power dynamic. Words reinforce this dynamic. Empathy expert Brené Brown points out that while the intent behind sympathetic comments such as “It could be worse” or “Look on the bright side” might be to comfort or to help someone embrace optimism, these statements undermine feelings and invalidate experiences.
Instead, choose language that communicates empathy. Acknowledge the situation with statements such as “I’m sorry you’re going through this,” or “I can see why this is hard.” Share how you feel — even if you don’t know what to say. A statement like “I can’t imagine what this feels like” shows you care. Express gratitude by thanking the person for sharing with you. Finally, show authentic support. Simply asking, “What do you need right now?” can go a long way.
Empathy is often described as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” To do that, though, means having the vulnerability to take your own shoes off first. Engage with people different from yourself. Make learning about others’ experiences a lifelong journey. Choose your words carefully, making sure you acknowledge the situation, share how you feel, express gratitude, and show support. And be willing to accept vulnerability as a personal strength that can strengthen others, too.