The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

I’ve had a powerful exchange via email with Mario Cantin over the past few days. He pointed me to a post he recently wrote titled Empathy is feeling *with* others and an amazing three minute RSA Short video on The Power of Empathy by Dr Brené Brown. It’s stunning crisp and enlightening.

Amy and I are huge believers in empathy. In our book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur we come back to this idea over and over again as one of the biggest challenges in communication between people.

Thanks Mario for sharing this with me.

  • knowing the diff between empathy and sympathy is crucial; an ongoing exploration. a couple of years ago at a Wisdom 2.0 conference I attended as a regular attendee, someone (I don’t recall who) on-stage brought up some old adage around empathy vs. _compassion_.

    something like: while on a hike, you come across someone pinned under a fallen rock. empathizing with their situation means to stand next to them and to get your mind/emotions around their situation, as they writhe in pain, unable to push the rock off of themselves. however, showing compassion for them is to empathize *and* assist in getting the rock off. it is to feel along with them, while trying to help.

    I’ve put a lot of energy into understanding empathy over the years; not my strong suit as “an engineer.” I’d lost touch with compassion however. I’m reworking it into my headspace and life. it’s an important third leg to this “how to relate to others” stool.

    • DaveJ

      I’ve only started on the journey of trying to understand empathy. My first epiphany was: since you need to actually have some purchase on what the other person is feeling, you need to allow yourself to experience various sorts of feelings yourself. “As an engineer” this is exactly what I typically do not do.

  • We don’t understand enough about Empathy. When it’s warranted? How is it helpful? How much of it is useful? How to deal with too much empathy? How to develop empathy skills?

    • It’s not something you turn on and off like a piece of appliance. It’s a mindset you develop. It’s a continuous awareness of the possible state of mind others can potentially be found in. It’s a sensibility you acquire. It’s an asset you nurture.

  • garyditsch

    Nikki saw that video and was watching it, as she was processing her feelings and thoughts around her accident. Here’s her post on the video:

  • The first time I had to fire someone – as a manager – HR gave me a script. Not to read, but to assist in preparation.

    After the big line, the script said [empathize]. Well, I generally just skim things and didn’t catch this – I thought it said “emphasize”.

    You are so fired! I mean gone, the cube light is on, but no one has a job there.

  • Thank you very much for this Brad.
    You’re so genuine man, it’s truly refreshing.
    You and I did have a *powerful* email exchange, and I personally feel lighter for it.
    To give credit where it is due, I’ve actually found out about the video from one of your readers, called Emily. I’ve looked up her profile on Disqus so I could reach out to her, but there was too little info on her profile to go by.
    All I did on the blog post you’ve kindly linked to is I’ve added my two cents.

  • I use the term “empathy” when I have actual personal experience with whatever the other individual is going through. I don’t think there’s really any other justification to be able to claim that you are feeling or experiencing what they are. I use the term “sympathy” otherwise.

    I really don’t like this presentation of her views of these words. She’s adding semantic to the words which is overloading the definitions. And the presentation makes it sound like sympathy is bad and empathy is good. These are fairly precise terms and some of the implications she mentions are beyond their definitions. For example, she focuses on the “connection” concept which really has nothing to do with sympathy vs empathy. I can sympathize with someone and still connect with them. Likewise, I can empathize with someone and not connect with them at all.

    • It’s not mere semantics.

      I actually get how you look at this, but in fact I’d assert you’re possibly a little mixed up on the definitions.

      If, God forbid, you ended with a terminal disease, for example, which statement would you rather hear, “Oh my God you poor thing”, or “Wow, fuck man, I really get it”?

      That’s the difference.

      You don’t need to be terminally ill to have empathy with someone who is, contrary to your logic.

      • Actually, you do IMHO. How can you have empathy for someone who is terminally ill unless you’re terminally ill yourself? I do not presume to know what or how someone is feeling unless I’ve been exposed to it myself. I consider that arrogant.

        If I was terminally ill and someone claimed to have empathy for me, I’d be put off since they obviously don’t know what they are talking about. In your example, that would be engendered in me if they, like you say, said “I really get it.” I’d think, no, you don’t.

        • I think empathy is possible in nearly any situation. It’s really about letting go of your own self (needs, wants, perceptions) and listening (both in words & action) to what someone is going through. @mario_cantin:disqus is really right about this, there is a tangible difference…I noticed it watching my mom in chemo & radiation a few years ago, what she needed and appreciated most was someone who was there to listen to the truth of what she was going through, and to live in that truth with her.

  • Harsha G

    Good video, thanks for sharing! I don’t always have to give an answer and maybe just listening is ok (great, i learned something today!). But, also seems like it’s a bit too harsh on sympathy…

  • Thanks Brad. Dr. Brené Brown has incredible insights and an uncanny ability to articulate them in ways that allow us to relate and reflect. Her book Daring Greatly is a masterpiece…

  • I respect her opinion and she explains it well in the visual, but I think it really puts limits on the idea of empathy. To her, it is clearly about connecting and identifying with someone in a dark emotional state. This is merely one way to empathize.

    Both empathy and sympathy are relevant anytime there is a difference in internal state between individuals. Two specific, constructive example of differences are political and religious ones. Broadly speaking, our common humanity imbues in us all similar faculties for reason. They are the specific conditions of our individual lives that lead us to hold widely varied opinions. But recognizing the former allows empathy for the latter. Here, empathy is merely the “taking of perspective” mentioned by the speaker. It’s not necessary to adopt that perspective. But to fully take it, one must be open to understanding the fears and hopes behind those perceptions. From here, common ground is more easily found.

    While the speaker’s definition of sympathy (complete with negative connotations) is linguistically correct, another valid and, to me, more useful definition is the actual adoption of a perspective held by another. You sympathize with a good friend when they lose a loved one, because you share a common history and identity with this person, and take their welfare for your own. There’s nothing negative here, but it goes beyond intellectual empathy into emotion identity. By contrast, you might only empathize, at an intellectual level, with the feeling of loss exhibited by a stranger.

    This isn’t to diminish either. Empathy allows common ground to be found between different cultures. Sympathy is the expression of a shared identity and bond.

  • Drew V

    I’ve read studies that conclude that millennials (and I think it even goes beyond into gen X) have a little more trouble with empathy, partly based on the use of technology in their communication.
    Since texting/emailing takes out all of the non-verbal communication within interactions, the ability to read people’s reactions and empathize with them has been reduced. If you call somebody a “jerk” to their face, you immediately see that they didn’t like it and you learn to be more kind. If you call somebody a “jerk” through a text message, you lose that immediate feedback.

  • A great companion to Mario’s post & this video is the podcast, in general but also esp. this episode that Jerry Colonna did w/Carm Huntress digging into how faith, trust, and intuition play out in building a startup: