Many people wonder what the real difference is between empathy and sympathy. The dictionary definitions are as follows:
Empathy means "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another."
Sympathy means"feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune."
These definitions give a good starting point, but not much detail. And the biggest problem is, they don't explain why the difference between these two concepts is important.
The Social Definitions
These definitions are just the surface of what empathy and sympathy really mean. And they don't give any hints on how or when to use them.
Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher of courage, vulnerability, and other emotional human experiences, provides a much more comprehensive view of what empathy and sympathy really mean:
Dr. Brown's definitions not only give us insight into what empathy and sympathy look like, but also provides guidelines for how to practice empathy in our daily lives.
Scenario: Practicing Empathy
Your friend Kim started crying. She lost her job a month ago, and now her house has flooded from the recent rain. She can't afford to fix the damages, and she has to consider borrowing money from her parents, who often criticize her choices.
Which of the responses below best reflects empathy?
When to Use Empathy vs. Sympathy
Sometimes when practicing empathy, it's good to let the other person know that they are not alone, and that you have been in a similarly difficult place before. Like Dr. Brown said, sometimes a person needs to hear, "I know what it's like down here." However, sharing intimate details of your background may not be appropriate in all settings.
Appropriate sympathy vs. bad empathy
If your friend is suffering from depression, it would be okay to say to them, "When my depression was at its worst, I felt like no one was there to listen. I just want you to know I'm here to listen to anything you need to say."
But that wouldn't be an appropriate response from an HR representative listening to your friend at work. In some cases, keeping a sympathetic emotional distance is more useful, as long as you still practice empathetic listening.
Practicing sympathy and empathy responsibly
An employee approaches their HR manager to say they're having struggles with alcohol.
Listen to the responses below, and decide what you think would be an appropriate response in a professional setting.
I'm so grateful you came to me with this. You came to exactly the right person for this problem. I used to have a problem with alcohol too, and I know it can just tear your life apart: your home life, your work life, everything.
I was in an awful place when my alcoholism was at its worst, so you absolutely came to the right person to talk about this.
I'm so grateful you came to me with this. I know it can be incredibly difficult to share something this personal.
Just to let you know, I'm always here to listen, and if you think it's affecting your work, just please come and talk to me. I'm here at anytime. And just to let you know, all of what you say is confidential and is only going to be passed on on a need to know basis.
As well, we do have resources here that the company provides, and if you ever feel like you need support with your problem, just ask and I am here to share those resources with you.
Which response do you think is better for a professional environment?
The concepts of empathy and sympathy are so much more than their simple definitions, and require time and practice to understand fully.
The four keys to empathy are:
Staying out of judgement
Recognizing and respecting the emotions of others
Communicating that recognition
And while there are some times in which sympathy is more appropriate, empathy is a much more valuable skill. Even in settings where emotional distance is called for, avoid adding silver linings, giving unwelcome advice, and minimizing their situation with phrases like "at least".
Practicing these skills can develop richer personal bonds, deeper understanding, and more meaningful emotional growth between you and the people around you.
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