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Empathy versus Sympathy

Published By

Rick Nason, Ph.D.

Published By

Omer Livvarcin, Ph.D.

The latest news about the COVID pandemic does little to diminish the uncertainty, and in fact, may seem to be increasing it. While there is talk of how to restart the economy, there are also studies to suggest that we may be in pandemic mode for much longer than initially expected. (The “back by Easter” talk seems like it was from a distant era at this point.)

We all know that uncertainty brings stress, confusion and a host of other negative emotions. Even those who thrive on uncertainty and chaos need some level of certainty in their lives. The media, of course, is amplifying these uncertainty-fed emotions along with carrying the stories of families that have been tragically impacted by the disease.

During a crisis such as this, it is easy to feel sympathy, both for ourselves and others. “We are all in this together” is a common phrase and one that is most definitely true. However, as a leader during a crisis, sympathy is not necessarily what is needed; empathy is ultimately the key skill.

Empathy and sympathy are often considered to be synonyms, and most of the time, the distinction is not important. However, for leaders during a risk management crisis, the distinction is critical. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is understanding someone else’s situation and understanding why they believe what they believe, why they feel what they feel, and why they act like they act. You can have empathy for someone, yet still not feel sympathy for them. You can have empathy for someone and still disagree with them and disapprove of their actions. You can also have empathy for someone and in addition, have sympathy for them.

Empathy is truly attempting to understand another’s person’s situation and feelings. In a crisis with tragic consequences, it is difficult to separate empathy and sympathy, and as a result, empathy tends to get lost. We start to assume that everyone is adapting to the situation the same as we are. It is an easy trap to fall into as “we are all in this together.” However, we are all in this together with very different levels of concerns, stressors, and perhaps most importantly, different coping abilities. It is easy but very ineffective to project our emotions, thoughts and reaction onto the emotions, thoughts and reactions of others.

As a leader, it is empathy that allows you to make the best decisions for the group and for the organization. As a leader, it is empathy that allows you to communicate and implement a strategy that others will follow and do their part to implement.

For nonprofit leaders, the situation is a bit more critical since they not only manage their organizations but also build bridges between various community stakeholders, including boards, staff, beneficiaries, donors, sponsors, volunteers and others.

Risk management is often correctly criticized as being a field of cold and emotionless statistical analysis. However, during a crisis, the effective risk leader brings empathy to the fore. Empathy is one of the crisis manager’s most powerful tools.

Rick Nason and Omer Livvarcin are co-authors of the book “Risk Management for Non-Profits”, published by Business Experts Press. Omer is also the founder of and Vectors Group. Rick is also author of “It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Management”, published by University of Toronto Press.

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