Although often used interchangeably, sympathy and empathy refer to two different feelings that you might experience toward others.
While you may feel sorry for a person or their situation—in other words, you sympathize with them—that doesn’t necessarily mean that you empathize with them.
Read on for more on the difference between sympathy and empathy, and how you can practice being more empathetic to those around you.
Sympathy refers to our ability to share in another person’s feelings, usually of sadness or sorrow.
When you feel sympathetic toward another person or their situation, you “feel bad” for them. You’re concerned and saddened by what they’re going through, and you wish things were better for them.
You can still feel sad alongside the other person—for example, your friend who just lost a parent—but that doesn’t mean you can actually empathize with them.
Examples of Sympathy
You might might show sympathy by:
- Telling someone you’re sorry for their loss of a loved one
- Sending a sympathy card to your friend who just lost their mother
- Sending flowers to a funeral
- Reassuring your friend that things will get better
When we show sympathy, we often focus on trying to make the other person feel better; so we offer what we think are words of support or encouragement.
While these might be appreciated, usually what helps a person experiencing pain is simply having someone who will listen and acknowledge what they’re going through.
Empathy, on the other hand, means actually experiencing the other person’s feelings. You’re able to put yourself in their shoes, which offers you a deeper understanding of what they’re going through.
The emphasis, then, is on this ability to change your perspective. If you’re able to see the problem from the other person’s eyes, you can be empathetic, even if you’ve never actually had the same experience.
We can see the difference between sympathy and empathy in the way we express each.
When expressing sympathy, for example, you might say something like: “I’m very sorry for what you’re going through.”
Empathy, however, sounds more like: “I understand how you’re feeling; please know that you’re not alone.”
Unlike those who feel only sympathy, those who feel empathy will do their best to just be a supportive listener.
They won’t pretend to know that things will get better, or try to offer some silver lining to make the situation “better”; they show up to offer support and company to the person in pain, to show them that they’re not alone in their struggle.
Examples of Empathy
You might do or say some of the following to show empathy:
- Inviting your friend, who’s just gone through a tough breakup, to come over and just talk
- “That must be so awful; I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Do you want to talk about it?”
- “I’m proud of you for being so strong. If you need anything please let me know.”
- “I hate that this is happening. My heart hurts for you.”
Why is Empathy Important?
Expressing sympathy is often the more comfortable response when someone is experiencing hardship. If you see a friend struggling, you naturally want to fix the situation for them, so you offer words of reassurance, like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or, “At least you still have a backup plan.”
But think back to a time when you were in distress. Would hearing something like “Things will get better, just wait and see” really make you feel better?
When you’re in the early stages of facing a problem, you probably get more comfort just talking about the issue and your feelings.
How to Show Empathy
If you want to be more empathetic, try the following tips when talking with others.
If you want to be more empathetic, start by being a better listener. When friends come to you to talk about something important, resist the urge to start offering feedback or your own solutions right away.
Just let them talk it out, and show them that you’re actually hearing them and understanding them. What they probably need most is someone who will listen to them without judgment.
2. Make Yourself Vulnerable
Have you gone through something similar to what your friend is going through? Feel free to tell them, even if it means making yourself a little vulnerable.
This will help the other person to know that they’re not alone; however, take care to not make it all about you (see #5). It’s enough to just tell them you went through something similar and that you know how they’re feeling.
3. Don’t Be Judgmental
Whatever you do, DO NOT start talking about what you would have done differently, or what you think the other person should have done. This doesn’t help their current situation in any way, and will only make them feel 10 times worse.
Try not to make the other person feel judged in any way for what they’re going through or for opening up. The best way to do that? Don’t judge them. Even in your own thoughts! Remember that you could easily be in their shoes.
4. Avoid Giving Unsolicited Advice
Unless you’re asked by the other person, try to refrain from offering unsolicited advice. While you surely mean well, the best thing you can do is listen (see #1).
Jumping too soon to your brilliant solutions will make the other person feel like their emotions are being swept under the rug.
5. Don’t Make It All About You
Once you start talking too much about the same thing happening to you, or how you know another friend who had it “way worse,” you risk taking someone’s moment of vulnerability and making it all about you.
While you may want to mention a shared experience to show the other person you understand them, never start comparing or ranking woes. It will seem like you’re minimizing the other person’s troubles.
Empathy vs. Sympathy: Is it Possible to Feel Both?
It is possible (and even likely) to feel both sympathy and empathy for a person’s situation. That is, you can understand deeply what they’re going through, and in turn, this makes you feel sad or some other emotion for them.
What’s less likely is to feel empathy without sympathy (although it’s possible). People who manipulate others, for example, are usually pretty good at understanding the feelings and emotions of their victims, though they won’t sympathize with them.
If you want to up your emotional intelligence and practice being more empathetic toward others, try the steps outlined above, and remember that the most important thing is to be a supportive listener.
How do you show others you care? Share your thoughts in the comments below!