Do you feel sympathy or empathy?
Is there a difference?
I have to admit that one of my pet peeves is people using the words sympathy and empathy interchangeably, as if there were no difference. However, when you teach classes about empathetic listening, the difference becomes critical. Although the terms share a common root: the Greek noun pathos, meaning “feelings, emotion, or passion,” Empathy and sympathy both have distinct meanings and usages. In general, ‘sympathy’ is when you share the feelings of another; ’empathy’ is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.
Sympathy (from sympathēs, “having common feelings, sympathetic”) has several senses in the dictionary, among them “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another.” The sym- in sympathy means “together” or “at the same time” and is the same Greek prefix that one finds in synonym, symmetry, and symposium.
On the other hand, Empathy emphasizes the notion of projection. You have empathy for a person when you can imagine how they might feel based on what you know about that person, despite not having those feelings explicitly communicated or shared. Empathy can be contrasted with sympathy in terms of a kind of remove or emotional distance.
The act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another is known as sympathy. Empathy, on the other hand, not only is an identification of sorts but also connotes an awareness of one’s separateness from the observed. One of the most difficult tasks put upon man is reflective commitment to another’s problem while maintaining his own identity.
—Journal of the American Medical Association, 24 May 1958
So why should you care?
Well consider how the two different feelings might impact a person’s ability to make logical decisions and help people find solutions. Remember, Sympathy means I share the feeling, so if you are having difficulty with a coworker, and I share the feeling then we are much more likely to have a complaining session with lots of catty comments rather that a problem solving session with a host of possible solutions. Empathy on the other hand, helps people to see, acknowledge and understand the causes of a frustration in a manner that would them to focus on finding solutions. Our emotional and logical centers exist in different areas of the brain. It is extremely difficult. if not impossible, for people to be both logical and emotional at the same time.
Empathy also means that I don’t have to agree with your emotions, or even approve of them. I just acknowledge that you feel the way you feel and that acknowledgement helps me to stay logical in emotional situations.
Now I do not mean to suggest that sympathy is inferior to empathy. Both have their place. For example, if you are grieving the loss of a loved one, it is appropriate and healthy to grieve along with you. We will both benefit from the emotional release. However, there are times when empathy is the more preferred response because I can understand your anger, frustrations, or worries without getting swamped by them.
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