Empathy or Sympathy: What’s the Difference?

{2:54 minutes to read}

With all the conflict and negativity in the world right now, I feel like a refresher blog on the subject of empathy is in order. I came upon this short video, The Power of Empathy, four years ago. It continues to be as delightful and fresh as when it first appeared. And, it accomplishes its task in only 3 short minutes of viewing time! So I invite you to click on the image below, enjoy the video, and then continue with the rest of my article.

Many people do not truly 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.

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 true path to conflict resolution – whether it involves a dispute between two people, a community, or separate nations – is by connecting with others through empathy.

One response on “Empathy or Sympathy: What’s the Difference?

  1. Ada L. Hasloecher

    What a great video Susan! Thank you for sharing something that so clearly hits the mark in a funny and yet poignant way.

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.

If you agree to these terms, please click here.