The Difference Between Empathy And Sympathy.
Do you know the meaning of Empathy? How about the meaning of Sympathy?
Quite often Empathy and Sympathy are confused, or taken to have the same meaning.
Let’s discuss in detail what each word means. More importantly, we will explore how each word and its meaning can help you in communicating effectively with your loved ones, your colleagues, and your friends.
The Oxford dictionary defines sympathy as “Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” It comes from the Greek word “sumpatheia”.
Sympathy is acknowledging, not necessarily understanding the situation of the other person.
The same dictionary defines empathy as “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It also comes from the Greek word “empatheia.”
Empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s position/place, and understanding/seeing what they are going through at the time.
Why is it important to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy?
Both are important in being able to relate to others effectively and in supporting others when they need guidance, help, understanding etc.
Let’s have a look at a real-life scenario in which you will benefit from understanding the difference between empathy and sympathy:
You have a friend who is being bullied at work. They tell you in detail all that they have endured. The feelings of frustration, sadness, and anger are obvious to you. Your friend has not specifically asked for any support or input. They are just expressing their feelings to you, and re-telling you their story of being bullied.
You start thinking about your friend, and your initial approach is to sympathise with them (feel sorry for them). You might say something along the lines of “I really feel sorry for you. Can’t believe this is happening. You poor thing!”
That approach makes your friend feel heard. It is clear that you see their pain, anger, and frustration. Hence, you feel sorry for them.
If you were to project empathy toward your friend, you will have a different approach. You might say “I can totally understand and see what you are going through by putting myself in your shoes. Goodness, this is so hard!”
Now, I am not insinuating that empathy is better than sympathy. They both have their place when dealing with others.
The key is to know when to use empathy, and when to use sympathy.
In the above mentioned example, empathy would be the more effective approach. It makes your friend feel understood. Being understood is far more empowering than being felt sorry for. When you make someone feel understood, you are more likely to support them in a way that they would prefer to be supported.
When you just feel sorry for someone, you run the risk of making them have self-pity. Self-pity (in most cases) is very dangerous, as it has the tendency to create/maintain a victim mentality.
Empathy is a very powerful communication tool because it allows us to be more human.
Let’s look at another scenario. Imagine a close friend of yours has just lost their pet dog, and is grieving deeply.
In this case, sympathy could be the more impactful initial approach.
Why? Sympathy will allow you to share their grief. It is said that grief is lessened when it is shared. You could easily say “I really feel for you. Please accept my sympathy”.
Sure, you could use empathy as well, by putting yourself in their shoes. Then, you will be better placed to support them in overcoming their grief.
In this situation, sympathy could be used to initially share their grief, and empathy could be used to support them in overcoming their grief.
Your goal should be to ascertain which one is best suited to every unique scenario. You must tailor your approach based on what has happened to the other party, and what they need from you.
In a professional capacity, sympathy and empathy could also be utilised together effectively. If you are the manager of a team of staff, and one of your staff has an issue that is affecting their performance, you could use sympathy to show emotion toward them. Then you could use empathy to put yourself in their shoes, and gain better ideas to support them productively.
Quote: “Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other”. Dr Neel Burton
I sincerely hope that you have gained a simple insight into how you can enhance your people skills by appropriately using empathy and sympathy.
Wishing you and your family a very safe and enjoyable Christmas!
Influencing you to your excellence,
PS: Here is my Anti-Bullying Charities latest short video (The Difference Between Bullying And Harassment) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42SsgdvTBLQ