Have you ever had a hard time with a situation and had someone ask you what is wrong? Then after you tell them what is wrong, they tell you the “silver lining” for your cloud. A “silver lining” is a statement such as, “I know you fell down the stairs and broke your leg. At least you did not crack a rib too.” How does it make you feel when someone makes light of a bad situation for you? I imagine the tidbit of information about how your sad situation was not as bad you think does not make you feel better. I find it frustrating.
Sharing an unsolicited “silver lining” minimizes another person’s hardship. Silver linings can make a person feel worse and alone. If an individual is pouring out their soul, more than likely, they want someone who can connect with them and understand how they feel.
I work with many people. I could never have imagined some of the things that people tell me. I am often left speechless and wondering what to say. My desire to connect was the reason why I attended a professional development about the difference between empathy and sympathy. I wanted to know how to communicate my compassion for people. I feel it, but I do not always express it well. And sometimes, sympathy is not enough.
Are you wondering what the difference is between empathy and sympathy? The video I included by Brené Brown explains the difference. I thought it was simultaneously hilarious and sad. As you watch the video, you will see that one is empathetic when one steps inside of what a person is experiencing.
One may not have had the same experience. Still, one can apply life’s experiences and think about how they might have felt if the same thing happened to them. It is like vicariously going through the same situation. On the contrary, someone with sympathy understands the situation, but they don’t “step inside” of what a person is feeling. A person that has sympathy may be sorry that someone is having trouble, but they are likely to offer a “silver lining” in conversation.
For empathy, helping does not necessarily mean that you will try to fix another person’s problem. Alternatively, you can listen when a person needs to be heard. There will be times when we should reserve the impulse to judge or give advice until a person asks for help. I learned that we do not have to feel compelled to have an answer to someone’s problem. If we do not know what to say, we should say it.
“I do not know what to say about your problem. I have never had that happen to me. However, I am glad that you told me, and I am here to listen. How did your situation make you feel?”
As school librarians, we interact with many stakeholders. The ability to express empathy is an essential skill for this reason. Empathy helps us to build relationships by showing that we care. Our students need to be educated in nurturing atmospheres. When we show empathy, we set an example for our students. We learn more about our environments by building healthy relationships based on trust. As such, empathy enhances collaborative relationships.
I have only provided a little information about empathy. If you would like to learn more, consider reading the work of Prudy Gourguechon. Gourguechon notes that empathy is a leadership skill. In her Forbes article, she writes about how the inability to “put yourself in another person’s shoes” can have devastating repercussions during decision-making processes. Think about this. How many wrong decisions have you witnessed leaders make because they chose to ignore the feelings of their constituents? How did it work out for them? Considering everything that is happening in the world today, empathy is something we need more of.
Gourguechon, Prudy. 2017. “Empathy Is an Essential Leadership Skill–And There’s Nothing Soft about It.” Forbes (Dec. 26). https://www.forbes.com/sites/prudygourguechon/2017/12/26/empathy-is-an-essential-leadership-skill-and-theres-nothing-soft-about-it/#348ce4402b9d.
Author: Daniella Smith
Daniella Smith, PhD. is a former school and public librarian. She is currently an associate professor at the University of North Texas.