Learning the fine difference between sympathy and empathy might save your relationships.
Both words come from the same Greek root, páthos, meaning “suffering, feeling.” And in casual daily use, we might use empathy and sympathy interchangeably.
But particularly in the field of psychology, they are very different words.
Sympathy means that we feel sorry for someone. We are compassionate, and sad they are suffering.
Empathy is more active. It involves trying to see from the other person’s perspective, to ‘put ourselves in their shoes’.
The problem with sympathy is that it creates distance. You are the person who is okay, they are the person who is not.
Of course sympathy has its place. For example, if we haven’t lost a loved one, it can be impossible for us to even try to understand what someone going through a bereavement is experiencing. Sympathy makes sense.
And it’s better for us to have sympathy for people who have done things we don’t approve of than to merely judge.
But in general, with friends, colleagues, and family members, sympathy can come across as condescending. If we lay it on too thick, the other person can be left feeling flawed, or guilty for being in a difficult place.
And the truth is that many of us, without even realising what we are doing, use sympathy to brush others off, and avoid a possibly difficult or intense conversation.
You are falling into the sympathy trap if you:
Carl Rogers, seen as the founding father of person-centred counselling, said that empathy is ‘one of the most delicate and powerful ways we have of using ourselves’.
For Rogers, a good therapist must have “accurate empathic understanding”. This means they work to be in the world of the client. They are fully focused and present to their clients, and try to imagine the client’s inner world as their own, without, of course, losing themselves to the client’s issues.
How can you integrate empathy into your relationships?
1. Be in the here and now.
Sympathy is often forward-looking. It’s about rushing the conversation along or secretly worrying it could happen to you. Empathy requires being fully present. Turn off all thoughts about yourself and your day, and just focus on the other.
2. Listen fully.
Many mistake not talking for listening. Listening is a lot more involved. Again, it means not thinking about other things, including not planning what to say next. It can help to repeat what the person is saying in your head. When you need to think allow a pause in the conversation.
3. Drop the ‘good advice’.
Advice is connected to sympathy. And it can leave the other person feeling that you don’t believe in them. Empathy, on the other hand, works best when we not only try to see the other person’s point of view, we believe they have the inner resources to find their way forward.
4. Ask good questions.
Instead of advice, ask good questions. This helps you understand the other person and 'put yourself in their shoes'. And it helps them find their own way forward.
5. Be yourself.
Sympathy often comes across as fake as we try to be ‘the positive together one’, thinking it will ‘help’ the other person. But it is authenticity that creates trust and openness .If you are moved by what they say, be moved. If you don’t know how to help, admit it.
Some of us find empathy harder than others. It might be that we were raised in a family where the focus was on ‘looking out for number one’, and anything else was seen as weakness.
Or it might be that our brains are not naturally designed for empathy, and we have to approach it as something to learn. This can be the case if you are on the autism spectrum, such as having Asperger’s.
A therapist can help you learn and practise empathy, as well as raise your confidence in relating with others.