Of Empathy and Understanding

A subtle yet important difference exists between the two. Always knowing when to use which is almost impossible, yet still manageable.

Empathy is when you can understand what people are going through because you are able to put yourself in their place. While Understanding is, ironically, not necessarily understanding how a situation affects someone, but simply accepting and acknowledging the way it does.

In a way, empathy is about shared emotional experiences. One can feel empathetic when one has been through similar circumstances and could imagine what it would be like for another person. Understanding however does not require familiarity. It just requires a generic realization that people are different in the ways they react to situations. In short, empathy is about similarities, understanding is about differences.

It is easy to confuse the two. And sometimes it could go wrong. You can see a person going through a similar situation you’ve been through, yet requiring entirely different kinds of consolation to feel better. Trying what works for you then can cause more harm than good. In this situation empathy was used instead of the needed understanding.

This happens because despite the seemingly similar situations, the background of these situations, and who the person is, can end up changing the support they need from what you would think is needed.

Now you may wonder how you are expected to figure it out. Well, the bad news is you almost certainly cannot, at least not totally. It is very subjective, so you cannot always know what is the right course of action for a person.

You can try and learn more about how other people work, but it would be still understanding not empathy. You will not get why they are they way they are or why they feel like that, but you will at least have a better grip at the way they are.

The solution, lies partially in one’s hands, first by understanding that people are different, and that you can sometimes with good intentions do harm instead of good. So tread carefully. But the second part lies in the target person’s hands. They should be understanding to your desire to help, and to the way you thought would work.

As is usual in life, compromises have to be made. And it is up to you to figure out which compromises work best.