Straight to voice mail…
10 minutes have passed. “Should I call again?”
Karl is a busy man. He’s an entrepreneur. Karl founded his company two years ago and it’s finally turning a profit. He’s responsible for more than 20 employees and hundreds of customers.
At home, Karl and his wife have two sons. A four-year-old and a two-year-old. At the moment, his wife is pregnant again.
Karl is late for our scheduled phone call. We’ve already rescheduled twice. And he’s now 20 minutes late. So I call again. Karl picks up, “Sorry, Chris. My son is sick, the other one won’t leave his mom alone. And I’m working from home today. It’s a full-time job taking care of these guys.”
“I could imagine. Do you want to reschedule?” I responded without even recognizing the mistake I just made.
Karl responded with a simple question, “Oh, do you have kids too?”
You’ve heard the old adage. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s all about seeing things from their perspective.
Your mother, father, teacher, or mentor has probably mentioned it to you before. Therefore, this is something most of us know.
But it’s not that simple.
You don’t know how it feels to be me.
Tom Petty, You Don’t Know How it Feels
Tom Petty speaks the truth here. The idea of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is not a lesson in sympathy. It’s about empathy.
The difference between empathy and sympathy is only two letters. Don’t mistake one for the other. They’re different.
For example, sympathy is saying sorry to a friend who lost her job. Sympathy is sending a card to a friend after they’ve lost a loved one. Sympathy is donating your time and money to help disaster relief victims.
Empathy is having been fired from a job, knowing how it feels, and identifying with someone who experienced the same thing. Empathy is losing a loved one, feeling the pain of that loss and being able to identify with someone in the same situation. Empathy is losing your house to a disaster and connecting with a person who went through the same thing.
Sympathy is showing pity or compassion for someone else. Empathy is connecting with someone who went through a similar disappointment or loss as you. It’s identifying with that same feeling.
As a younger brother, I grew up following my big brother to all his soccer games. He played all around the country. Florida. DC. Indiana. His travel team was good and so was he. They won lots of games but lost their fair share of them too.
I’ll never forget his reaction after one of their major losses. He is ultra-competitive. I mean he doesn’t even let me win a game of tic-tack-toe. If I beat him, he would be furious for days.
The soccer moms (and parents) would support the players at each game. When the team lost, the parents would be sympathetic. After a losing this game, they stopped the kids while they were walking off the field to say, “It’s okay. It’s okay. Get them next time.”
My brother heard this and his eyes rolled. He was a teenager at the time, and you’ll never imagine the words that came out of his mouth.
“No. It’s not f*cking okay.”
He was right. They lost and it sucked. It was far from okay.
It was disappointing, devastating, and frustrating to lose a game. All the players knew that. They knew what it felt like to play in that game and not win.
The parents didn’t know. They weren’t the ones practicing and playing in the games. They could offer compassion, but they didn’t know how it felt to be one of the team players. The parents were providing sympathy, not empathy.
Empathy is a major ingredient of interacting with other people. It’s just often confused with sympathy.
We think by saying, “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” we will magically empathize with them. It’s simply not true.
This lesson was a tough one for me to learn. As I’ve grown to working in customer support, I know empathy is a big part of the job. It’s how you connect with your customers.
We can all be empathetic, right? Just put their shoes on. But that morning when Karl asked me that question, I realized I had it all wrong.
“Oh, do you have kids too?”
“Oh, no I don’t. I’ve got a long way to go before that.”
Karl acknowledged what I said. And then paused and told me, “Then you really can’t imagine how it is. Because you don’t have kids yet.”
We went on to have a great conversation, but I was humbled. Karl was exactly right.
I have no idea how it feels to have kids. I struggle enough getting myself out of bed and making my lunch every day. I can’t even imagine having two kids under five with another on the way.
I could sympathize with Karl. But I couldn’t empathize with him.
Not even if I put on his shoes.