Though people sometimes use the terms interchangeably, there are key differences between “empathy” and “sympathy.”
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the feelings of someone else. An empathetic person has the ability to put themselves in the other person’s shoes rather than just feeling sorry for them.
Empathy involves thinking through and understanding why someone feels or acts the way they do without being judgmental. In this way, empathy is more than just being kind or showing pity. Empathy helps a grieving person feel understood and is more likely to bring people together because it’s based on an acknowledgment of the emotions someone is feeling.
Showing empathy and that you’re listening can look like restating the problem and emotion someone is dealing with or asking questions. Prompt someone to share more information if they feel comfortable so you can further understand their point of view, rather than cutting the conversation short with a generic “I’m sorry.”
What is sympathy?
Sympathy is feeling sorrowful for what someone else has experienced. A sympathetic response is based on what you’ve experienced. You may feel bad for someone, but you don’t necessarily understand how they’re feeling.
When sincere and sensitive, sympathy may be comforting, but it does run a higher risk of making someone feel alienated. Just feeling sorry for someone doesn’t make them feel as emotionally connected to you as an empathetic approach.
However, sympathy may be better for your own wellbeing depending on your own bandwidth and boundaries. Sometimes making space for empathy can be harmful to your mental health, so evaluate the situation and determine what serves both of you best.
How to be more empathetic
Taking an empathetic approach when someone shares their feelings with you is a great way to make that person feel genuinely understood and strengthen your shared bond.
Empathy involves active listening—listening to understand, not just to respond. You can’t be empathetic without taking the time to hear what someone is going through and being willing to go past surface-level conversations.
Spending time with people who are different from you is one of the best ways to develop more empathy. Go beyond small talk with your neighbors, coworkers, or strangers to discover how they’re doing and what their life looks like. On social media, you can follow people from different backgrounds, whether it be political affiliation, religious beliefs, race, gender, or other identities.
Empathy will come more naturally when you have a broader understanding of the range of situations each human being deals with.