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Empathy, Sympathy and the Box of Tissues

When I read the “Empathic Stance” chapter in Pamela McLean’s “The Completely Revised Handbook of Coaching,” I paused, when I read the following sentence:

“A coach can choose to notice and acknowledge tears or quickly move to get the box of tissues and "help the client feel better. Empathy and noticing the tears is helpful to the client, whereas rushing to the client's aid in an effort to help the client "feel better" or sympathizing and soothing the client results in entering the client's system, losing effectiveness as coach, and, most important, missing the power of the moment for the client.”

My thoughts went back to a situation a couple of years ago, when I was still practicing law and officing in our gorgeous, still spanking new offices in downtown Chicago designed to demonstrate transparency, openness and sharing, with walls of glass around me. One of my younger team members and mentees Anna sat in my office after receiving some brutally honest and negative feedback from one of my partners, and her tears started flowing. There we sat and I remembered times when I received similar harsh feedback as a junior associate and felt the emotions of shame, anger, despair and frustration. I shared that story with Anna and asked her what she felt at that moment and how she felt she could reflect and grow from this feedback. Anna was able to verbalize what she felt and why and we spoke about that. At some point, I did grab my box of tissues to offer her something every day useful and, with that, the opportunity to wipe her tears and find her way back to continue her workday and emerge out of my glass-walled office.

Did I practice empathy? Yes, I did. I listened and encouraged Anna to sit and embrace her own emotions. Did I show sympathy? Yes, I did! I tried to use my own story of receiving similar harsh negative feedback to help Anna understand her own cocktail of emotions, reflect and grow as a person and attorney from the experience. Isn’t it really both empathy and sympathy that Anna needed at that moment?

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Regine, I am so impressed by the way you handled this interaction. You couldn’t have been expecting it, and the way you showed up – with empathy, and sympathy (yes – both!) was a great gift to your young colleague.

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