Sympathy Versus Empathy: You Choose the Winner

Sympathy versus empathy. Sometimes we confuse the two. Can we get clearer on this? Is one better than the other?

The definitions according to psychiatrist Neel Burton, Psychology Today:

Sympathy: “a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress.”

Empathy: “a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.”

More specifically breaking down the latter, empathy studier Brené Brown relates four attributes nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman found in her research (per Kate Thieda on Psychology Today):

  • To be able to see the world as others see it
  • To be nonjudgmental
  • To understand another person’s feelings
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings

So, here’s a really important point about sympathy versus empathy: “Empathy, Brown explains, is…a more powerful choice than sympathy. Empathy enables us to relate to and console those in our lives, while sympathy distances us” (Huffington Post).

Always the helpful teacher, Brown has narrated a cute animated feature that further elaborates on the differences between empathy and sympathy:

Want to get an assessment of your own ability to empathize? Greater Good at Berkeley provides an Empathy Quiz that measures both “affective” and “cognitive” empathy.

What are some ways to improve your empathy? Recent and separate studies have indicated that a couple things many of us already do regularly can be helpful: reading and watching TV shows.

Greater Good’s suggestion, on the other hand, is to consult Roman Krznaric‘s “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.” For details regarding his list, presented below, click on the link.

  • Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers
  • Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
  • Habit 3: Try another person’s life
  • Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up
  • Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change
  • Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination

Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, Krznaric’s 2014 book, is newly out in paperback. “Having spent the past decade studying empathy,” Brené Brown asserts, “I can say without hesitation that Roman’s work is exactly what we need to bring this powerful concept off the pages and into our lives. Empathy inspires with a unique combination of teaching, storytelling, and a serious call to action.”

One thought on “Sympathy Versus Empathy: You Choose the Winner

  1. Thanks so much for this day’s blog! I love Brene Brown and love that you chose this particular topic to share. Thanks for all your wonderful blogs this year: always educational and thoughtfully done. Looking forward to another year of good reading!

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