Empathy vs. Sympathy

by Tolu Taiwo

This past weekend, Colorado State University’s RHA and NRHH chapter (the two wonderful student organizations that I get to supervise) had their annual Spring Retreat for the hall council, senators and representatives, and cabinet members. As usual, the retreat was a blast, but amid the State of the Organization address, tests, and break-out sessions, there was a short but significant glitch—one of the students had a family crisis, and learned some heart-wrenching news. I found her outside of the retreat building, crying and being consoled by a fellow hall council member. My half-mom-half-superhero complex kicked in, and I started to jump on the comfort train by giving her hugs and listening to her story.

Eventually, she was able to get a hold of her mom. While she was on the phone, I turned to the other hall council member, and remarked, “You’re a good friend.” She just looked at me, and smiled. After a beat, she added, “I just know what it’s like.”

I couldn’t place the appropriate word for what was going on at the time, but the fellow student had displayed an impressive amount of real empathy. She displayed compassion in the realist of forms, and her actions reminded me of Brené Browns “The Power of Empathy” video. Empathy drives connection, it’s the judgment-free way to take the perspective of another person who’s hurting and then communicating that you recognize their emotion. It is, from the direct words of Brené, “feeling with people,” and a “vulnerable choice” to connect with others. And it’s very, very different than sympathy, which is silver-linging someone’s pain, and offering an empty response to the problem.

I don’t think I came at the student with a total sympathy angle—I know I didn’t use any annoying stock phrases that started with “at least” or pity her, and I just listened instead of giving hollow advice. However, I have to admit that the hall council member was more effective in the crisis than I was—there’s nothing more powerful than helping someone by authentically relating to them. Sometimes, we just need a pal to get in the trenches with us, and while I may have been somewhat of a help to the student, I should have taken more of a backseat and let empathy do its thing. That isn’t to say that I shouldn’t have stopped and checked up on the student, but realistically, she needed what her fellow hall council member was giving her more than what I could offer.

This semester, I’m taking a class called Human Relations. Contrary to what it sounds like, it’s not a course on HR departments, but a course on student affairs as a helping profession, and dealing with student crises. My goal is to approach what we learn in the class with an empathic eye, and remember that part of helping a student is by being as empathetic as possible. “I just know what it’s like” may be a hard and even a dark place for us to travel, but it’s the best way to connect with students, and, in the grand scheme of things, each other.

You can see the Brené Brown “The Power of Empathy” video here: http://brenebrown.com/2013/12/10/rsabear/

Student Affairs - the First Years

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