Difference between Empathy and Sympathy, By Robert Glazer
A few months back, as part of a training on core values, a member of our team shared with the group that while they wanted to be seen as someone with a high degree of empathy, they very much disliked sympathy.
Their comment made me reflect introspectively on the difference between sympathy and empathy. While I had always thought of them as closely related, I’ve come to realize that is not the case.
Sympathy is most often experienced when we feel bad for someone else, viewing the situation from our own distant perspective. Sympathy isn’t always received positively; this is especially true if the person you are sympathizing with feels you are looking down on them, or taking pity on them. While sympathy is often used in good faith, it can have a negative impact when the person needs you to relate to them, rather than be detached.
A key differentiator of sympathy is that it can be expressed without any corresponding emotion or understanding of the person’s situation. For this reason, sympathy is often most appropriate from a distance, such as if you are offering condolences to someone outside your inner circle after they’ve lost a loved one. Sympathy can also be used to show respect for another person’s situation, even if you do not relate to it personally.
In contrast, empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what another person is feeling from their point of view, not your own. It means putting yourself in their shoes to feel what they’re feeling and understand their perspective as best as you can. Some people are inherently empathetic, irrespective of the circumstances, and have a natural tendency to feel what others feel. But for most people, it’s easier to have a high degree of empathy for situations or challenges they’ve experienced first-hand.
Generally, people experience and express sympathy and empathy at different times, rather than simultaneously. For example, I might sympathize with a friend who lost a lot of money gambling, because I recognize their pain, even though I don’t agree with or relate to their decision to gamble.
On the other hand, I might empathize with another friend who lost their job without warning if that same thing has happened to me before. Because I have experienced their situation firsthand, I can naturally relate to them from a deeper place of understanding.
Most experts believe that empathy is a more helpful response than sympathy. Of course, there can be cases where neither sympathy nor empathy is the ideal choice.
For example, people who empathize deeply often take on the emotions of the other person. This can cause issues: if you are attempting to support a friend that is anxious and angry after someone has broken into their home, you aren’t really helping them by empathizing, and becoming anxious and angry yourself. In this situation, your friend would need someone to be understanding, calm and levelheaded, rather than sharing in their fear and frustration.
What’s needed in these cases is a third approach, according to Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, and author of the book Against Empathy. Bloom argues, with support from clinical studies, that empathy, however well-intentioned, is often a poor guide for moral reasoning.
Instead, Bloom suggests a different approach that is based on compassion. While empathy is about stepping into someone’s shoes, compassion, as Bloom shared in an interview, is, “a feeling of concern for another person’s suffering which is accompanied by the motivation to help.” The key distinction is that being compassionate does not require you to share the other person’s feelings or state of mind.
As Bloom illustrated succinctly, “If you’re depressed, you don’t want me to sink into depression. Then you’ve got two problems instead of just one. You want me to sort of be uplifting, cheer you up, put things in perspective.”
To be sure, sympathy, empathy and compassion all have their time and place in both our personal and professional relationships, depending on the situation. We just need to make sure to use the right tool for the job.
Where have you used sympathy or empathy recently, where compassion might serve the situation better?
Quote of the Week: “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.” – John C. Maxwell
Robert Glazer is the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, an award-winning partner marketing agency with over twenty-five best place to work awards. He is also a bestselling author and keynote speaker and was twice named to Glassdoor’s list of Top CEO of Small and Medium Companies in the US, ranking #2.