What’s the difference of empathy vs. sympathy?

While they are often used interchangeably, there are crucial differences that lead to very different outcomes. Polar opposite outcomes, actually. According to social psychologist and bestselling author Brené Brown: “Empathy fuels connection, and sympathy drives disconnection.”

Empathy vs. Sympathy: What's the Difference?

Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy? Basically, emotion. Empathy means experiencing someone else’s feelings. It comes from the German Einfühlung, or ‘feeling into.’ It requires an emotional component of really feeling what the other person is feeling. Sympathy, on the other hand, means understanding someone else’s suffering. It’s more cognitive in nature and keeps a certain distance. 

This hilarious RSA Animate, narrated by a clip from Brené Brown’s TED talk on empathy, highlights the difference perfectly:

Listening vs. Fixing

I’m a fixer. When I hear a problem, I want to jump immediately to solving it. And… empathy is uncomfortable. It often means sitting in silence, not doing anything. It feels better to offer some sort of solution, new perspective, or diversion. But then I have to remind myself, “Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.”

And obviously, I am not talking about my friend saying, “I wish I could find an oil change for under $50.” If there’s an easy solution, offer it by all means. I am talking about a friend saying, “I have been feeling really down lately… I am struggling with depression… My marriage feels like it’s falling apart…” It’s in these times when someone’s expressing feelings that it’s essential to master the nuances of empathy vs. sympathy. Luckily, there are some telltale signs of when we are responding with sympathy instead of empathy.

The ‘At Least’ Trap

“Rarely does an empathic response begin with at least,” says Brown. Check out this Facebook interaction I came across the other day. Notice how a comment like this drives disconnection. The person says, “I’m sorry,” which is a good start, but then goes into comparing her suffering to her friend’s suffering. And no one benefits, or gets closer, as a result. 

In this context, this response seems ludicrous, right? And it is. But it’s also a really common way to respond to other people’s problems. It’s irresistible to try and put a silver lining on it, with but or at least. I know I am guilty of it. My excuse is that I am “helping them” see the bright side. And while that certainly has a place, when people are being vulnerable about a problem, it’s normally way more effective to practice true empathy.

Could she bring up her own experience and be more empathetic? Of course! Here’s what that could look like:

Comment: “I am so sorry. I got a big bill for a kidney stone a few years ago and I can relate to that terrible feeling. I am thinking of you!”

Just a small difference and this comment now fuels connection. It puts them on the same team, with shared feelings. Instead of trying to fix it by offering a different perspective, the fix is to assure the other person that those feelings are valid and that they are not alone. That is what differentiates empathy vs. sympathy.

Check out this other example. The “offense” is less offensive, but a small shift in how they respond still leads to a big increase in empathy + connection.


Validating vs. Reassuring

My aunt Linda felt scared to death. She is an active retiree in her late 60s. She walks miles a day, takes classes at the community college, and is involved in local politics. A couple months ago she slipped and broke her hip, which required surgery. The months of immobility took an emotional toll, and the fear of falling again has affected her more than anything else.

She opened up to a number of friends, saying ““I’m really afraid of falling again.” And one of the most common responses? “… But you’re being so careful.” It’s meant to be comforting, but it really just invalidates her feelings of fear. And insinuates the original accident happened because of carelessness. A more empathetic response would be to simply nod and paraphrase back the feelings you heard: “It sounds like you’re really scared of falling again.” As Brené Brown says, “Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.” It’s a beautiful challenge to simply sit with discomfort and the unknown. It’s okay to say: “It sounds like you afraid of falling again. I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you.”

Empathy vs. Sympathy: Try This Experiment

Try this experiment, which I heard expressed by Josh Freedman, Six Seconds’ CEO:

When someone’s expressing feelings, & you want to help them solve the problem… what if you just wait a bit? 

Listen more… affirm that those feelings are real.

Accept: it is what it is.

Only after all that, then ask: you want any ideas on what to do about it, or you got this?

Kelli Schulte, a wonderful member of the EQ community and founder of EQuip Studios, can relate and has been going through this process for years:

“I’m a fixer. I hear a problem and I want to jump to a solution. I’ve been working on trying to linger in the listen mode. It feels really awkward sometimes, but the value – oddly enough – is greater connection with the other person. I get to just be and connect with the other person in a new and different way. It’s so interesting and also takes the pressure off of me to come up with a solution. I’ve been “practicing” this for a couple years and it’s still hard! Work in progress.”


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