Would you describe yourself as a sympathetic person? On the surface, the quality of being sympathetic has a very honorable sound to it. When we choose to be sympathetic to the plight of someone, it has come to mean that rather than be hard-hearted and blind, we choose to see what is occurring, and perhaps attempt to offer some degree of comfort to go along with that plight. If we can make someone feel a little less horrible in the process, then so much the better! Sympathy also tends to be mentioned most often when there has been a sense of loss, such as at a funeral, and we “extend our deepest sympathies”.

What far fewer people are aware of however is how this quality of sympathy very often comes across to others, and especially our teens and children. Sympathy allows us to show that we feel bad that someone else is hurting, but without requiring any real degree of understanding what that person is going through. In other words, we can meet our need to attempt to bring comfort, and to feel bad when others feel bad, but without getting our hands dirty and talking to them about what has occurred. It is always much safer and easier to avoid sharing about times we have also been through hurts in our own lives. The uncomfortable truth in all this? Kids and teens don’t want our sympathy, they want us (most of the time) to be present, to truly listen, and to be prepared to understand and sometimes feel tough emotions right along with them. There is a unique term for this deeper form of showing we care – empathy.

My favourite example to use when describing empathy to someone comes from an activity we all do at least once a week, making a purchase from a grocery store. Though there is some variation between different stores and employees, it is a guarantee that you will be asked by the person at the checkout how you are, and maybe if you were able to find everything you were looking for. Sound familiar? The programmed (and expected) answers in our culture to these questions are “good”, and “yes”. It allows for a minimum of time investment at the checkout, and nobody is required to leave their emotional comfort zone in any way. But what occurs if you then ask the person at checkout how they are doing, and especially if you follow that up with “why are you feeling good/bad today”?

There is often an enjoyable (for me, at least!) uncomfortable moment where that person at the checkout realizes they are being forced out of the pre-programmed answers, because they are faced with a simple form of empathy – the genuine desire to understand how someone is feeling. Empathy requires that we go beyond the simple and comfortable, and being prepared to show ourselves and others that we are prepared to invest in their situations on a deeper level. Not surprisingly, when I visit with young people in my practice, there is often a sense of relief and happiness on their part that someone is taking the time to listen, and will seek clarification and ask questions in return. Much of what I do is actually very simple on one level – be present, listen intently, and allow the person to take you to their dark places with them. That is empathy.

By the way, many people at grocery stores welcome an invitation to go “off-script” and share how they are truly feeling in that moment. The answers can be amazing and enlightening you get when you ask how their shift is going that day. I’m sure I have had several dozen different answers to this one, and each reveals a small glimpse into the life of that individual. There is always infinitely more to their lives than a scanner and debit machine might indicate. By the same token, everyone is far deeper and has much more of a story than we might guess; the only question is if you are prepared to engage and discover more.