What’s the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?

What's the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy? by Susan Ingram

Please take a look at the video below, The Power of Empathy, which was produced by RSA Shorts. In just three short minutes, it explains the power of empathy in an extremely creative and humorous way. Enjoy viewing it – and then continue on with my article, as I share with you some of my own thoughts on this subject.

Most people do not understand what “empathy” is, and how very different it is from “sympathy.” Basically, empathy is the ability to understand and feel another person’s emotions. When you experience empathy, you put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You actually move into the space of that person’s experience as you “feel with” their suffering.

How very different that is from expressing sympathy for someone. With sympathy, you “feel for” that person’s suffering. This actually creates a barrier between yourself and that person. You may feel sorry for the person or even feel pity for him or her, but you are not truly sensing or experiencing their pain.

Carl Rogers, the eminent American psychologist, gave a wonderful description of empathy. He saw it as a way of entering the private world of another so that you become a companion in their world. And as you do that, you lay aside your views and values (and judgments) and relate solely to the other’s experiences and emotions.

NYC mediator Susan Ingram discusses the importance of empathy and how it differs from sympathy.The need to set aside your own judgments is a crucial element of empathizing with another person; without it, you would not be able to enter their world as they experience it. Empathizing is not problem-solving or taking action to make the situation better. It is, simply put, feeling a deep connection with the other person. When that deep connection is established, many positive shifts can occur.

Scientists have found that our brains are hard-wired for empathy and that, for those who don’t possess empathy, it can be taught and learned. That’s certainly heartening news. I, and many others, believe that the only path to conflict resolution – whether it involves a dispute between two people, a community, or separate nations – is by truly connecting with others through empathy.

Please share your thoughts on this important subject and post a comment. Thank you!


Comments from Social Media

This concept is often misunderstood and it is extremely important because it has been said that empathy makes us human.

Mark B. Baer


I totally agree. If I can help the parties in conflict to have some empathy for each other, even if they don’t agree, that will be a benefit of mediation to them.

Randy Edwards


What a lovely explanation of the difference between sympathy and empathy! As I begin my journey as a mediator and conflict coach, I am learning quickly how much people appreciate an empathic response when the conflict has overwhelmed them. Thank you so much for that additional insight into the importance of empathy in mediation.

Lisa Scholz


Empathy is an important and essential component and it is one of the factors that can establish the possibility of engagement in the mediation process. I certainly believe it is an important essence in pre-mediation meetings to help the parties come to the table and know they have been heard and understood. I love Brene Brown’s work in the area of empathy.

Liza Miles


Thanks for sharing this, Susan. It really made me stop and think about my responses to people I’ve encountered in past situations. At my best, I’ve shown empathy, but I know I’ve often been guilty of pointing out the silver lining, since I tend to be an optimist. I can see from Brene Brown’s comments why that response wouldn’t be helpful. It also made me aware of why I’ve often come away dissatisfied when I’ve shared my own painful situation with someone who’s responded with sympathy rather than empathy. It makes sense. The empathetic response feels more like we’re all in this together. The sympathetic response feels like the person you’re talking to thinks they’re superior and you’re pitiful.

Marjorie Carter


A super article, and I agree with its content. I am a lawyer and I acknowledge that many lawyers don’t get empathy. We are trained as lawyers not to become emotionally involved with a client’s problem. In my experience many lawyers fail to understand that empathy is a very powerful asset to help you build a relationship of trust with your client. You often hear the phrase ‘that law is a great career but for the clients’. I often feel that the people who express this view do not understand the power of empathy, or maybe they are simply afraid to get emotionally involved with their clients.

John M. Bourke


Very cute video short! The narrator’s vocal inflections really brought the story to life. I agree that empathy is key to conflict resolution. I also think this can be a tough nut to crack. People in conflict are challenged to feel empathy because their focus is usually on the choices others have made and not their underlying reasons or feelings. What a wonderful opportunity we have as mediator’s to help people in conflict explore more than just the actions people have taken. I think finding commonality in otherwise very polarized positions is why mediation works. An ounce of empathy can go a very long way.

Donna Williams, Esq.


Well I would say that empathy is a very key ingredient of conflict resolution. It is the understanding that empathy demonstrates that leads to the resolution of conflict. You have to show you have an understanding for the impact their experience has had on them. You don’t have to agree with people or even understand their experience and you certainly don’t have to have experienced it. But you do have to acknowledge the importance to that person, they need to know their experience is acknowledged and needs matter and you know what those needs are.

Patrick Moulsdale


I see empathy as the key in the management by a mediator of a high emotional state being exhibited by a party. Empathy, which I would define as listening without judgment, will enable the mediator to decode the party’s emotional experience, help the party understand his or her emotions, and help the party reappraise them so as to try to remove them as an obstacle to settlement. A party who feels that he or she has been heard is more likely to be able to focus on what can be reasonably expected, rather than on what he or she may desire.

Irvin Schein


Share this:

6 responses on “What’s the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?

  1. Susan M

    Thank you so much for sharing this enlightening video. This simple and yet revealing approach to understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy helped to clarify a situation I had with a friend who is going through a rough time. As a mediator, it seems easier to work with people whom I don’t have a personal relationship, but when it gets personal, the real work begins. In my haste to ‘come to the rescue’ of a friend, I encountered a level of anger and hostility from her that was surprising. Good intentions, despite what we want to believe, are not enough. I should have just listened with a compassionate ear, and not offer any advice or solutions….it’s a lesson learned the hard way.

  2. John Bodle

    Thank you very much for this blog. I had long sought a cogent explanation of the difference but never heard one that did it for me — indeed I’d resigned myself to considering the distinction pointless, though some insisted it was profound. Now I understand why and how.

    This will be quite valuable professionally and personally!

  3. Mohamed Raffa

    Loved the emphathy/sympathy anonym video. Great commentary.
    However, one disagreement regarding dispute resolution especially Arbitration. I will agree with you when it come to Mediation where emphathy will be a vital component, for without it, there would be no Mediation.
    Nevertheless, I loved your article and video.
    Did I say this before?
    Well, it is good to confirm.

  4. Beth Myers

    Congratulations, Susan, on another important post. Building rapport, truly connecting with parties through empathic listening is an essential element to successful mediation. When relationships matter, mediation works it out, litigation fights it out. Empathy makes all the difference.

    Have you shared this on APFM’s FB page? I’d like to share on my personal page too.
    – Beth

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of Google's reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

I agree to these terms.