Empathy, Not Sympathy, is Critical to DEI

NOT Sympathy

Empathy is the ability to identify and understand another person’s situation without judgment, the full acceptance of their story. You have not lived their situation to be able to relate to it. Sympathy, by contrast, is projecting a feeling of less than (looking down) upon someone for the hardship they are experiencing.

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Mother Teresa

As allies in training, here are some well-intentioned statements to avoid:

  • “I had that happen too”
  • “Bless your heart”
  • “You poor thing”
  • “How can I help?”

Instead, consider these statements to show you really want to empathize:

  • “I am sorry”
  • “I have no idea how you feel”
  • “That sounds hard”
  • “Let me help you by ___”

When someone is experiencing pain, they rarely know what help they need or what support should look like for them. Allies can be helpful by creating a soft place to land.

Being an ally is like being a soft place for someone to land.

I was in my early twenties when my mom died. A lot of people felt sorry for me. A lot of people were there for the first month after she died. But, as time passed, fewer people checked on me and when they would, it was usually with a sad look on their face like I was someone to be pitied. I didn’t know what kind of support or help I needed at the time nor how to cope with my emotions. I now realize that it was my allies who would invite me to go out to dinner and listen, send me inspirational quotes, and drop by with coffee for a chat, that helped me get through such a dark and lonely time in my life.

People that are experiencing the adversity of diversity don’t know what support looks like. If they did, they wouldn’t be in that situation. Allies do the guesswork for the person in need and think about what they might need and align it with what they are able to provide. For example, what hobbies or interests does the person have? Are they time deprived and need help with meals or errands? Are you good at cooking, shopping, or do you enjoy things that they enjoy? Find the synergy of what they need and what you can provide and meet them where they’re at.

After George Floyd was murdered in the summer of 2020, I was unsure of what to say to my friends of color, or if I should say anything at all. So I kept quiet for the first few days, and now I realize that I was completely wrong. By the time I reached out and asked them how they were doing, they’d already heard from all of their white friends and I was just another white person asking them to help me understand their pain. I felt that I was adding to their burden. Now I am mindful to reach out to friends when there are events that are triggering in the news cycle about diversity.

Even with my experience in DEI training, when I look at a picture of a person of color experiencing trauma, it’s through my own white lens. I feel empathy, but I don’t feel like the trauma is happening to me and people that look like me. For people of color, it’s like seeing a mirror of them experiencing the trauma they all too often see in our news cycle and in our flawed criminal justice system. After the events of the summer of 2020, and the popularity of allyship increased but there was still a lack of real action. I asked my friends of color, what should I do? Most commonly, they said, keep talking, keep showing up.

People who are experiencing the adversity of diversity want us to keep talking.

My friend and ally, Liesel, is an empathy trainer. She and I were at a gathering recently and she asked me a very curious question, “What did you learn most about yourself from the pandemic?”

Her question stopped me mid-bite. It was such a genuinely empathetic question that I had to really think about my response. I couldn’t simply answer with a quick, one-word, simple response. I had to pause and really think about it. She commanded a real response.
As I paused and thought about the answer to a question, she continued to nibble on her food, maintain healthy eye contact and show that she really wanted to hear the answer. She wasn’t trying to stump me. She wasn’t trying to one-up me. I knew she genuinely was curious. What was beautiful was that she was modeling exactly what she teaches without going into teaching mode.

I responded that my partner and I fell in love again during the pandemic. That we spent so much time together as a family and realized how lucky we were to have shared interests and things to connect on. She followed up with more empathetic questions, asking about details I had shared in my response – What shared interests did we have? What did we connect on?

As allies, we don’t know what we don’t know.

I had been feeling terrible that night with the stress of my new baby not feeling well, wanting to be present for my friends, and feeling overwhelmed. Liesel helped me feel seen and heard. She made me feel like I belonged there. That’s the magic of empathy. When done intentionally and consistently, people extend their trust to you. You learn things you didn’t know before. You build bridges to people you don’t naturally understand. You maybe even learn how wrong you were about somebody you had prejudged without knowing that well.

What’s next?

Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.