My daughter recently asked me the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy involves feeling sadness for someone else’s situation and meeting them with care and concern. Empathy, on the other hand, is about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. When you imagine how someone else feels, you treat them the way you would want to be treated.
Both stem from a place of kindness, so does it matter which one you get?
Sympathy vs. Empathy
Sympathy certainly isn’t a bad thing! People want to be treated with care when they’re expressing their frustration over their situation. Sympathy or concern may be all you need in a short-term exchange. But in on-going relationships, empathy or even compassion is needed for good feelings to flow back and forth.
From Pity to Compassion
Psychology Today talks about the range from pity to compassion, defining how a person can move from acknowledging that someone else has a problem to helping someone with that problem.
- Pity: Oh no! Aphasia sounds awful. You poor thing.
- Sympathy: I am so sad that you’re experiencing aphasia.
- Empathy: I understand that aphasia is frustrating, especially not being able to easily communicate.
- Compassion: I want to help you navigate aphasia.
Can you give empathy if you’ve never experienced aphasia? How do you “feel” what the other person is feeling or gain that insight without going through the experience?
According to the BBC, we’re already hardwired to feel empathy, and learning how to be more empathetic is a skill similar to learning how to drive a car. So much of it comes down to picking up on body language, practicing “radical listening” (which means really hearing the person without thinking about what you’re going to say next), thinking deeply about the people around you.
Even without personally experiencing aphasia, people can feel empathy for another person’s situation and even make the jump to compassion and figure out ways they can help.
Do you think there is a difference between sympathy and empathy? Do you enjoy receiving one more than the other?
Image: Angela via Flickr via Creative Commons license