Empathy vs. Sympathy

August 8, 2007 | 2 Comments

The July-August Mighty Oak Ministries newsletter featuring an article on Communicating with Empathy was mailed last week. If you aren’t on the mailing list, you can read it here.

I received an email from a friend who said, “I would have loved to see you compare examples of how not to give sympathy in a way that creates a pity party. What would that person say in contrast to the person who shows empathy?”

Great question. In empathy, the listener synchronizes with the speaker’s feelings and content in a way that lets the person know he or she has been heard accurately. The intent of an empathic response is to help the speaker move out of the negative emotions and into a more positive place. Empathy puts us on the same page without entering into the pity party.

In this context, sympathy can seem very similar. You still synchronize with the speaker’s emotions and sometimes with content, but rather than providing a supportive environment from which to grow, the sympathetic response can lead into more negative emotion and draw the speaker away from healing or resolution.

So in the example given where the speaker is upset at being passed over for a promotion, a sympathetic reaction might be for the listener to become even more emotional than the speaker. He might berate the boss with anger: “He did what?!?! What a jerk! I can’t believe he didn’t see how hard you’ve worked or what you’ve contributed to the company! He’ll be sorry!” Or the listener might lament deeply with the speaker: “Oh, I’m so sorry! How awful! That’s just a terrible thing for him to have done to you. How could he not see what you contribute?” The result is often a movement downward into anger or pity, often at a deeper level than the speaker started at. It doesn’t help the speaker move to a stronger place. In fact, it can lead to the speaker becoming more emotional, and then the listener follows, and so forth until there is nothing but negative spewing forth.

Another form of sympathy is what we would call the Band-Aid response. That’s often just a perfunctory, “Oh, I’m so sorry. You must feel awful!” without addressing the content or offering anything very personal. It’s more of a required answer.

The difference between sympathy and empathy can be subtle and hard to differentiate. But the key as a listener is to always seek to help the speaker move from despair to hope, from sadness to encouragement—without a bumper sticker answer. Hope this helps.

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2 Comments so far

  1. lesley on August 14, 2007 9:56 am

    Thank you for your blog and your web site!!Being a mom is not so hard but being a really good mom is a tremendous challenge for me. Your essay on empathy vs sympathy was very helpful as I continuously learn how to respond to my special needs child-
    particularly when she is in lots of pain. Too much sympathy and she grows up full of self pity.

  2. patsikora on August 17, 2007 10:44 pm

    Lesley, I’m so glad it was helpful. You’re walking a very difficult tightrope between empathy and sympathy. I’m glad God has given you the wisdom to do it!

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