Many of us use the terms “empathy” and “sympathy” interchangeably. Do they mean the same things? Are they different?
Well, yes and no. Both terms are derived from the Greeks and both are ascribed to situations that involve sadness, suffering, mourning, loss. Sympathy generally describes compassion and/or pity we may feel for another person’s situation whereas empathy puts ourselves in the shoes of that suffering someone so we can share their sadness. Sympathy shows solidarity with the situation; empathy immerses yourself in the situation with the other person.
When we sympathize with someone experiencing a painful situation, we support and share our concern for the other person without knowing exactly how the other person actually feels. Because we have no direct knowledge of the suffering person’s situation, all we as the sympathizing person can offer is unconditional support. On the other hand, when we empathize with someone experiencing a painful situation, we actually do know how the other person feels because we have experienced that same situation. We as the empathizing person can offer valuable insights into the situation because we both share and have shared that situation. Our insights may actually help the other person develop new coping mechanisms to deal with the situation.
Either way, a person showing sympathy and/or empathy towards another person experiencing a painful, difficult, sad situation is central to becoming a compassionate person overall. Scientific and psychological research show us that being a compassionate person able to offer comfort and support to those in need has real benefits. Being compassionate towards others uplifts others around us, according to Dr. James Fowler at the University of San Diego. It inspires action and motivates us to connect with, rather than avoid, those in pain. And being compassionate towards others sparks a chain reaction of kindness towards others.
Are there ways of becoming more compassionate towards others in our working lives when we encounter clients who are dealing with divorce, death of a spouse or friend, foreclosure or the stress of moving? By all means, yes. Pay attention and listen to others without judging them; respond to, rather than avoid, people expressing “negative” emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger; recognize, appreciate and reinforce a person’s positive characteristics; be patient; and respond with openness to someone’s sorrow, pain and/or worry.