Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference?
What’s the difference of empathy vs. sympathy?
While they are often used interchangeably, there are crucial differences that lead to very different outcomes. “Empathy drives connection,” says social psychologist and bestselling author Brené Brown, “and sympathy drives disconnection.” Learn more about the difference of empathy vs. sympathy and get practical tips to increase your empathy.
by Michael Miller
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:
My favorite line from Brené’s TED talk?
“Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.”
Increase Empathy by Practicing All 3 Parts
There are 3 parts to empathy, which have more formal names but can be more easily understood as thoughts, feelings and actions. To truly practice empathy, all 3 are required:
1 Cognitive empathy – This is the thinking part. Imagining ourselves in a situation, and what it would be like. If we use this part without the next two parts of empathy, we slip into sympathy.
2 Emotive empathy – This is the feeling part. It’s standing shoulder-to-shoulder with that other person and feeling with them. It’s not above or apart from them, but together with them.
3 Empathic action – This is the most difficult part for me, and for many people. Because it actually means sitting in silence, not doing anything. Many people, myself included, default to offering some sort of solution, new perspective, or diversion – to do something. Do you know the common saying, “Don’t just stand there, do something”? Our coworker David Tubley says empathy is exactly the opposite: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” It sounds goofy but actually takes tremendous courage and vulnerability.
The temptation to “do something” is often a deeply ingrained pattern, though, so let’s take a look at some of the most common traps that derail people’s efforts to practice empathy:
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Common Empathy Traps
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 the opportunity for empathy is lost.
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 just sit in the darkness with them.
What would a more empathic response 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.
The ‘Promises You Can’t Keep’ Trap
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: An Experiment to Try, and Resources to Learn More
Practice: 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?
Learn more: Short videos to learn more about emotional intelligence:
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Hi, I saw a link to a slideshow my daughters Girls Scout organization posted about an Empathy vs Sympathy discussion they would be having online. All were invited to attend and the slide stood out to me because it said Sympathy drives disconnection. I commented “Yikes, sympathy drives disconnection?” The Girl scout organization sent me a link to this video and I watched it. I understand there benefit for both parties if you have some vulnerability, but I would like to hear more about when the vulnerability and empathy might or might not be appropriate. I am not teaching my daughter she has to go down in the trenches with people in every situation.
I always thought that Sympathy was feeling bad for someones’ situation or misfortune and Empathy was a deeper understanding of the issue someone is feeling because you either have experienced the issue or can imagine experience\ing the issue.
Very well put and very helpful /informative.
Hello, mates extremely informative post. Truly looking forward to reading more. Many thanks for sharing your info.
As I understand it,
Sympathy is about sharing a feeling you have had yourself.
Empathy is about understanding a feeling that you have not experienced.
So while looking up empathy vs sympathy, I found both your article and another one from merriam-webster.com, and now I’m confused. Your definitions of both terms are complete opposites. Merriam-Webster claims that empathy is the term for expressing understanding of someone else’s suffering, whereas sympathy is the term used for experiencing it yourself. From what I’ve learned over the years, yours appears to be the correct one, but I’m honestly not sure. One of you has it backwards anyway, so you might want to check it out:
100% — The author of this piece has this backwards, perhaps because they have chosen to rely too much on the “expertise” of Brené Brown instead of cross-referencing the material. Brown is redefining the term empathy to be sympathy and sympathy to be some kind of sociopathy.
Empathy and Sympathy come from the Greek root (pathos); empathy means understanding someone’s feelings, sympathy means sharing their feelings. Crazy mistake to make given its the point of the article
As others have pointed out, this is almost entirely backwards.
“Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.”
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.
Are you sure this is not vice versa?? Just wanna know
Yeah, what you wrote is exactly 100% wrong, Billy. No offense, as it’s confused so many people. It’s the exact opposite of what you wrote. The word “sympathy” literally means “to feel with” – it’s from Greek, which I’ve studied. It means literally nothing of what Brene Brown says. For some reason she decided to throw out the meaning of the word “empathy” and replace it with sympathy’s meaning. Then, she redefined “sympathy” as basically being an insensitive, ignorant jerk.
Unfortunately, because of the wide platform Brown has and the fact that she’s a so-called “expert” with a TED Talk, people expect her to know what she’s talking out (people like the writers of this blog). And those people will spread the error and judge others who actually use the words correctly.
What’s sad is that Brown actually has a good message. She didn’t need to demonize the word “sympathy” and idolize the word “empathy” to make her point. She should have done her homework.
And people really need to think for themselves and learn to apply critical thinking – not just believing what others tell them.
This is from a trustworthy and respected source with multiple linguistic experts who study actual usage and word origins.
Their conclusion is correct.
Ok, my turn!
Both words are of Greek origin, however as dictionary.com explains, the current definition of empathy identifies closer with your German word.
Meanwhile the difference between sympathy, empathy is so discrete that this definition argument could go on indefinitely.
Perhaps we would better meld thier definitions, and learn when to identify with the cause or the effect (as appropriate) with compassion. May the listener discern what the sufferer is crying out for.
The Webster explanation was a good read, and the most helpful for me
Very well put and very helpful /informative.
I have to admit that if I were to share my problems and someone were to simply say “wow I hear you that’s terrible” I would be very disappointed and feel like they either didn’t care to try to solve the problem or were trying to get weirdly and uncomfortably close, although it would be hard to argue with them since they’re simply agreeing. I would probably just leave.
On the other hand if they were to offer solutions I would evaluate whether they would work and either reject them which I admit might start an argument or agree to try them. I think this approach is more helpful, because I know this might sound obvious but if someone has a problem solving the problem is a lot better than empathizing with a problem.
It’s almost as if you are saying problems can’t be solved. (Except by a paid professional perhaps?) Anyway this is the perspective of an INTP. So trust me not all people want this kind of empathy and I think you should consider that if you truly want to be compassionate.
Now I am confused. How could Dr Brené Brown get the words mixed up?
Now I am confused. Which is which.
How can Dr Brené Brown have the words mixed up?
She doesn’t. This is the most common understanding although clearly there is some disagreement and I think the meaning of empathy has evolved from its original application in psychology. Sympathy is basically pity in modern usage. And empathy involves feeling others’ emotions, as would an empath such as Deanna Troi.
The examples you have given are so apt. I was looking for the meaning of empathy through examples and here I found it. Thank you for writing this piece.
Joining the other comments pointing out that this articulation of the distinction between sympathy and empathy is backwards.
“Einfühlung” refers to the act of imagining yourself in different circumstances, and that’s the origin of the word “empathy.”
One of your opening paragraphs outlines a difference of meaning between empathy and sympathy. It seems to be incorrect. Backwards, actually
According to Miriam Webster’s dictionary the definitions are exactly opposite. That dictionary defines sympathy as sharing the emotions of another and empathy as understanding the the emotions of another, but from a greater emotional distance. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/sympathy-empathy-difference
The Oxford English Dictionary is a little different in defining sympathy as showing you are sorry for another or care about their feelings. Like Webster’s they also define empathy as the ability to understand another person’s feelings.
So the two most widely accepted dictionaries of American and English language define sympathy as sharing the feelings of another and empathy as a more emotionally distanced understanding those feelings.
I’m an English teacher. This is hilariously wrong for an article trying to define the difference. You have sympathy for a situation you’ve been in, empathy for a situation you haven’t, and they’re both rooted in caring about other people.
Thank you for your wonderful article and video clip.
Can you please suggest how, if you are at the end needing sympathy, one can communicate to a well intentioned care giver to have empathy and not sympathy? I have struggled with my relationship with my parents as they never empathise with me. They have sympathised or even had pity (which i found very degrading), but u cant remember a single incident of then actually empathising with me. This has hugely affected our relationship and this is inadvertently having an effect on me now.
Wow! That’s a powerful, challenging question. One strategy I’ve tried is to send a note something like this: “If you would you be willing to talk about this with me… I would like to have a conversation about how we can best support one another in this stage of our relationship. Now we’re in a ‘new season’ of our lives, and so I think we would benefit from updating how we interact. I love you and I want us to support one another in the best possible ways.”
This was the first result in my Google search and I can see why. It’s concisely written and I really appreciate that. Thanks for posting it.
Hi Fabian, thanks for the kind words. And thank YOU for reading it. Do you remember what you searched in Google by chance? I am curious what exact phrase this article ranks highly for – and I am happy that it is!
it was in mines to very helpful information now i can start my journey on sympathy and empathy when it comes to different situations first by not allowing other peoples feelings and problems control me secondly knowing when you have empathy and sympathy and when not to.
There’s significant debate about meaning, but what i see is just a sentence out of place. It should read like THIS:
“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. It’s more cognitive in nature and keeps a certain distance.
Sympathy, on the other hand, means understanding someone else’s suffering.”
THIS would then align the M-W dictionary, and pretty much all other defining sources of these words.
This was a valuable, insightful, and clearly written article. Thank you so much for your hard work 🙂
Hi Ziyad, thank you so much! I am glad you enjoyed it!
Great article and Brene is a trailblazer! I tried to download the workshop slides, and I was taken back the article. Can you help?
Hi Cynthia, thank you! I have fixed the error that prevented the download from working; it’s working now! I apologize. https://www.6seconds.org/2018/10/30/empathy-vs-sympathy-understand-the-crucial-differences-and-why-empathy-drives-connection/
Your article is extremely helpful in shedding light on the difference between empathy and sympathy. As a psychologist dealing with student community have recently had the opportunity of talking with them about emotional intelligence. This will further enable me to elaborate and explain the difference between the two. Looking forward to more enriching work from your side.
Hi Dr. Mohan, thank you very much for your kind words. Thank you for doing such important work with students, and I am glad this article can help!
Yes! That is the way I have always known it to be. I have been trying to explain this to my bf.
Wonderful article- really helped me understand the differences and seep how in my goal of providing empathy, I often default to sympathy without even knowing it!
Hi, Shelly! Thanks for the kind words. I default to sympathy, too – and when I first saw that Brené Brown video, it really opened my eyes to a new way of looking at empathy. It’s still a process for me to practice it, but I am having small successes more and more often. I hope you are, too!
Excellent article Marcia! I have been writing and speaking on this topic for some time and felt I understood it quite well but you have brought up points that have helped me deepen my understanding.
I’m looking forward to reading more of your work!
Hi Harvey, thank you so much! I appreciate the kind words and I’m glad the article helped deepen your understanding. It’s a nuance of empathy that I personally find to be both fascinating and challenging – I tend to want to “fix” people’s problems right away.
I think you have mixed up empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling the feeling/emotion and empathy is understanding the emotion.
There is reassurance bing made building connection within
Oh my, I think I may be your “Aunt Linda”!
It is sympathy and disconnects because taking the place of an auntie does not help but if she had given her the need she wants from her auntie then it would be better. Rather, she should have just listened and silently attend to the other person.