So there has been alot of talk lately about hearing peoples problems and how to react to people who may share too much. I have been fortunate to learn some important lessons on this front and will share them with you. I was told early in my professional career when hearing employees problems you want to empathize with them and not sympathize. For a refresher here are the definitions of each:
Empathy means the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
Sympathy means in a relationship between persons in which the condition of one induces a parallel or reciprocal condition in another.
There is a difference in identifying how a person is feeling and feeling what that person is feeling. By identifying someones emotions and why they feel the way they do you are able to understand that persons point of view. The key to this is to NOT sympathize with them as well. By giving someone sympathy you are feeling what that person is feeling and losing your objectivity in the emotion-fest that the discussion has become.
When dealing with difficult personal issues of employees you need to set boundaries within yourself. Be careful not to get so wound up in their emotional state that you start to make decisions on how they are feeling. Understand their emotions and attempt to understand why they feel that way, but keep in mind the objectivity you will need to help them accomplish a desired outcome (whatever that may be). Emotions are a normal part of life, however, if you go through your professional career feeling every single strong emotion that comes through your office you will quickly become burnt out. I sense this alot in HR professionals and Human Service workers in particular.
It is fine to care about your employees and I am not suggesting that everyone become an unfeeling automoton. What I am suggesting is that you acknowledge those emotion, have enough life experience to understand what that emotion feels like, and finally act without those emotions getting in the way of good judgement and solid decision making.