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Sympathy - Empathy - Compassion

Sympathy - Empathy - Compassion

Communication can be surprisingly hard.

Human beings talk a lot. Well many humans do. Some less so, Some more so, but I reckon, in general, there's a lot of daily jibber jabber.

Some of that talking is light hearted "Small Talk". Some of it is world changing speeches. Some of it is the daily to and fro we need to get stuff done; at work, at play, at home.

Some talking leads to conflict. Whilst thinking and talking about how to resolve conflict in more constructive ways, me and Gina Likins puzzled over how we could talk about compassion, and the important part it plays in conflict resolution. We talked about Empathy and Sympathy, and examined various definitions of all these words.

In the end, this is what we came up with. We were thinking about Free and Open Source Software communities. But it seems to have resonated with others, so, I thought I'd post it here, and expand a little on each point.

Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion are "Big feels". So, this is just my take on how we might more easily distinguish them from each other.


This is when we feel sorry for someone. We acknowledge that something has happened which isn't good for them, and is causing them some level of distress. In the software world, it might be like noticing that someone has reported a bug.


This goes a step further. This is when we really acknowledge something is wrong. Perhaps we've experienced it too, we understand the issue is real. In software terms, perhaps we can replicate the bug, and acknowledge it's an issue that needs addressing.


The next step comes when we are motivated to help. We've not just acknowledged there's a problem, but are willing to do something to help fix it. In software terms, it means stepping up to help fix the bug that's been reported.

Bug trackers and issue queues can be sources of minor conflict. We lack the non-verbal queues provided by tone of voice and body language that help when raising issues. It's natural to feel defensive. But perhaps, taking a moment to reflect on how we communicate, and what we hear, what we mean, and how we respond, could really help us get more done, together.