Sympathy is the intellectual understanding of what it must be like to be having the experience I am currently having.

Sympathy resides almost entirely in the realm of the intellectual, and consequently it is very safe.

When you sympathize with me, I get the experience that you are there FOR me.

There is a power imbalance.

On some level, you maintain altitude, or stay removed from my experience. There is a fundamental “alone-ness” that is created and maintained.

This alone-ness is safe, and allows you to avoid really having to be with the experience I’m in.

Empathy is you being willing to share the felt-experience of whatever I am currently experiencing.

Empathy entirely bypasses the intellect, and instead has your nervous system resonate the same way mine is. If I’m feeling grief, you too are willing to stay open-hearted and allow that same grief to be felt in your own body.

When you empathize with me, I get the experience that you are there WITH me.

With empathy, there is no stratification of power or different states in our relationship. We are sharing a moment, rather than sitting, divided, on either side of it. There is a fundamental “together-ness” that is created and maintained.

This together-ness is risky, and represents your willingness to feel my own suffering. You are doing so for the simple reason that it is there in the space with us, and you are willing to share some of my burden for a moment.

You cannot get to empathy from sympathy. In fact, sympathy interrupts the pathways that would allow empathy, and simultaneously masquerades as the kind of work that empathy requires, while ensuring that it stays forever out of reach.

To be a transformational leader, you must learn the art of empathy, and be willing to engage in the risks associated with it.

Here’s one simple way to practice empathy:

Next time you find yourself judging a friend or colleague, pause the intellectual chatter, and plug into what you are feeling in your body.

Let go of the story about it (eg, “I feel hollow because what he is saying is dumb”), and instead, just connect with the feeling in your body.

Consider that they are feeling the same thing you are feeling.

Now simply let yourself feel that.

There is of course far more to be done.

But for now, this is how you begin the journey, and how you learn to transform.