It's a beautiful thing sometimes: I write about emotional intelligence, either on or in my free e-book, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, which can be downloaded here), and readers respond with ideas that deepen my understanding even more.

That's what happened recently when a reader, who had seen my column from last year breaking down the subtle differences between the words empathy and sympathy, referred me to an insight from Susan David.

A psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of the 2016 book, Emotional Agility, David also has a celebrated TED Talk with more than nine million views. Of all things, it was her Facebook post in January that prompted me to revisit this topic.

Let's first quickly recap the distinctions I examined between empathy and sympathy last September (and for that matter, pity). These differences matter precisely because people often use the words interchangeably and reflexively--and thus, incorrectly.

Embracing the definitions, however, and thinking about what you're really saying leads to changes in behavior that can prompt subtle improvements in relationships.

As I wrote in 2020:

  • Empathy involves effort. It's the active attempt to experience someone else's feelings or thoughts. It's about trying to "put yourself in another person's shoes," to be colloquial.
  • Sympathy involves a more automatic or involuntary affinity. I might automatically sympathize with someone who has a background similar to mine, but I'd have to make an effort to empathize with someone who has had very different life experiences.

Additionally, although it's in a different category, let's talk about the other word from last year's examination: pity. This a very different concept, involving sorrow prompted by others' misfortunes, but with no suggestion of a shared emotional understanding.

The word David adds to the progression from sympathy to empathy, and beyond, is compassion. According to her shorthand, it implies: "You are suffering and I will do what I can to help."

These are all beautiful words, as far as I am concerned, given that they all involve human connections, along with a sorrowful or emotional reaction to the pain of others. But when people speak without thinking, they can sometimes confuse compassion with the other words I've examined, to negative effects. 

  • They might do so by "trading up," meaning that they might say they feel compassion, when they really mean empathy or sympathy (or pity).
  • Or, they might unintentionally "trade down," saying they feel sympathy for example, when they really mean that they're moved to action, as compassion would suggest.

Now, David and I don't agree 100 percent on the precise implications and definitions of all the words involved here. In fact, that's what really got me thinking about this deeply to begin with.

  • As one example, I think the implication that she takes from sympathy ("I'm sorry you're in pain") is closer to what I think is suggested by pity.
  • Meanwhile, the implication she attributes to empathy ("I can imagine what this pain feels like") is closer to what I think is implied by sympathy.

It's like they're one step off from each other, linguistically. But I don't want to get too bogged down in that. The real point is to train yourself to think about both what you want to say to people, and how the specific words you choose will land on their ears.

(Basically, any time you're explaining "Oh, but what I really meant to say was ...," you're probably doing something wrong.)

So, just imagine a sliding scale: Start with pity, even though I think that's in a slightly different category, and then the big three: sympathyempathycompassion--each expressing a feeling in response to another person's situation, but each also also implying an increasing level of connection, care, and even action.

When you think about the expectations each word carries -- especially if the other people in your conversations apply more stringent definitions -- you can see how reflexively choosing the wrong word sends a different message than you intend.

Now, let's talk about all of this, briefly, in the context of emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence has gotten a bad rap recently. Critics argue that it's rooted in an outdated understanding of the world, and that it has been warped through the prism of early 21st-century labor and employment economics.

To which I respond with another three words: "Yes, maybe, but ..."

Basically, I think people have evolved their use of the term emotional intelligence, at least colloquially. It's not just a psychological theory to them.

It's also a shorthand for work that people do to train themselves to act in ways that can improve their communication and relationships.

In other words, when I wrote recently in another article about the difference between parallel and convergent responses in conversations, most readers weren't so concerned with the neurological bases of emotional intelligence. 

Instead, they cared more about whether it actually makes practical sense that memorizing simple rules of the conversational game can improve communications skills--and ultimately relationships.

Same thing here. My entire theory is that learning these kinds of simple, tactical linguistic tricks can pay off handsomely, and lead a little bit toward a more fulfilling and successful life.

At the very least, you get the personal satisfaction of using language correctly. But I also think there's something more.

I'd be interested to hear what you think; heck, it's reader feedback that prompted this column to begin with.   

But if you disagree, let's both commit to keep the education coming in a spirit of compassion. We'll try to understand each other, but we'll each also take at least some small action, to try to help each other out. 

(Don't forget the free e-book, Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021.)