Applied Psychology

The difference between empathy and sympathy (and how to to nurture both)

Jul 24, 2018

While sympathy focusses on feeling sorry for another and empathy on walking in another’s shoes, both are vital to our interpersonal connections.

Key takeaways

  • Despite being used interchangeably the terms empathy and sympathy have very different meanings.
  • Empathy is the idea of putting yourself in another person’s shoes.
  • Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone else’s misfortune.
  • Although we are born with an innate ability to sympathise and empathise these can be further developed using various techniques.

The Difference between empathy and sympathy and how to nurture both

The terms empathy and sympathy are often confused and used interchangeably. When compared however the terms have quite different meanings and their differences can be attributed to the emotional processes involved.  

The root of both empathy and sympathy lies in concern for another’s well-being. Perhaps the simplest way to explain empathy is the idea of putting yourself in another person’s shoes, which pays homage to the old idiom, ‘before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.’ Empathy occurs when you, yourself wholeheartedly try to understand and feel another’s emotions as if they were your own. Sympathy, on the other hand, is feeling sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. You feel bad for someone based on their situation or circumstances. Sympathy is often full of platitudes and closely related to pity. For many, the term has negative connotations. The difference between the two terms may seem slight, but it equates to two very different forms of behaviour and feelings. Sympathy is often doing or saying what is expected, hence the endless supply of sympathy cards. Whereas empathy, on the other hand, follows the golden rule, ‘treat others as you would like to be treated.’

Both terms find their origin in the Greek word pathos, meaning suffering and feeling. Empathy is derived from the ancient Greek word empatheia being a combination of the prefix en and the word pathos meaning ‘in feeling’. Likewise, sympathy has its roots in the Greek word sympatheia, being the combination of the prefix sum, meaning together, and the word pathos. The literal translation of the term is ‘together feeling’ or ‘together suffering’.

Both sympathy and empathy play vital roles in our ability to connect with others. Research shows that we are born with a degree of sympathy and empathy. In fact, it is estimated that 98% of people are born with the ability to empathise. Both sympathy and empathy are innate and can be further developed over time, for example, babies show distress when hearing another baby cry. Despite this, however, recent studies show that sympathy and empathy are on the decline. Studies illustrate that the boom of the digital age and the increase in online trolling and harassment that comes with it have resulted in a 50% decline in empathy levels amongst college students. All hope is not lost however. In his book, Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It, social philosopher Roman Krznaric suggests five sure-fire ways to develop and nurture our ability to empathise. Here they are:

1. Listen

When arguing with someone, whether it is at home or in the boardroom, remember to take a moment to really listen to what they are saying. Focus on two things, what the other person is feeling and what they need. Once done reflect to them what you have heard. Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Non-Violent Communication, showed the importance of this in his study on employee / employer conflict. Results indicated that conflict resolution is reached 50% faster if each party repeats what the other has said.

2. Talk to strangers

Empathy is often stifled due to stereotyping and prejudice. For example, we quickly form an opinion of others based on how they look when in fact we know nothing about them. Krznaric suggests having at least one meaningful conversation with a stranger per week to boost levels of understanding and nurture empathy and sympathy.

3. Travel by armchair

Reading books and watching television are great ways to ‘step into another’s shoes’. Identifying with the characters and imagining how you would feel and act in a similar situation allows you to practise your empathy and sympathy skills.

4. Reading the mind in the eyes

Empathy in the workplace leads to better teamwork, leadership and creativity, because of this Krznaric recommends including empathy tests in the initial recruitment process. One such test being the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. Here participants are shown sets of eyes and asked to pick a word best describing the person’s emotional state based on their eyes. Research shows that people with high levels of empathy are well-skilled in this type of emotional reading.

5. Teach children to identify their feelings

Undeniably, the most effective way to fight the decline of empathy is to nurture it at a school level. Through face-to-face communication, you can teach a child how to identify their own feelings. Only then will they be able to identify the emotions of others. Laura Dell, an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati, explains this when saying, “Before children can identify and empathise with other people’s feelings, they need to understand how to process their own feelings. Once they can identify their own emotion, they are better able to develop those self-regulation skills to control their own emotions – and then take the next step to understand the emotions of others.”

A major attribute in nurturing empathy and sympathy in children is the development of the Canadian programme known as the Roots of Empathy. The programme has been so successful that it is now being implemented in schools all over the world. Here the teacher comes in the form of a baby who visits the class throughout the year. The children sit with the baby and discuss topics like what is she thinking? What is she feeling? In doing so they develop their empathic imaginations and in turn their levels of empathy. Since the introduction of the programme schools have seen a decrease in bullying and an increase in academics all round.   

Despite their similarities, sympathy and empathy have very different meanings. Both, however, play an important role in allowing us to connect with others and should be encouraged and nurtured whenever possible.

You can gain more insight into the many facets of the human experience by studying psychology. SACAP offers a range of courses that can pave the way for a career in psychology, while developing skills that will prove valuable in a variety of other career paths. For more information, enquire now.

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