I Just Need Someone to Listen! The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

Do you find yourself  feeling with or feeling for others? Simply stated, that is the core difference between empathy and sympathy.

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Feeling with another person, or empathy, allows one to feel heard, understood and cared for.  Empathy is the ability to recognize and share the emotions of another; the ability to see a situation from another’s perspective and sharing in their emotions.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, states “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.”

So how can you cultivate your empathic skills?

  • Be fully present in your interactions with others, tune out your own stuff for a moment and truly listen.  Look the other person in the eyes and allow yourself to become fully engaged.
  • Be a curious and active listener.  The intention of empathy is not to offer advice or fix a problem, it is to simply be there and try to understand because you truly want to.
  • Learn the art of non-judgmental connection with others, “Please tell me more about what you are going through” “How can I be of help to you.”  As the Dalai Lama says, “What is Love? Love is the lack of judgment.  And that is the deepest and highest form of empathy.”
  • Get in touch with your own emotions.  To understand the feelings of others you have to understand your own.

Feeling for another person, or sympathy, is often confused with empathy.  Sympathy does not involve shared perspective or emotions, rather it conveys a feeling of concern for some one and a wish for them to be happier.  Sympathy is often conveyed through words, body language or facial expressions.  So while behaviors convey sympathy they do not convey that distress is shared.

In the following video, researcher Brené Brown, further explains the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Watch video here: empathy vs. sympathy video

As Brown explains, empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice.  Consider taking some time to think about how you relate to the feelings of others.  Imagine the immense difference it could make in your relationships to strengthen your empathic skills!